As a dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham (born 1910) wowed audiences in the 1930s and 1940s when she combined classical ballet with African rhythms to create an exciting new dance style.
Dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1910, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a small suburb of Chicago, to Fanny June (Guillaume) and Albert Millard Dunham. She was their second and last child together. Her brother, Albert Dunham Jr., was almost four years old when she was born. She adored him and thought of him as her protector. Their mother, who was French Canadian and Indian, was 20 years older than their African-American father.
Fanny Dunham had been married once before, to a man whose last name was Taylor. Their marriage ended in divorce and they had three children together: Louise and Fanny June (Taylor) Weir, who had families of their own by the time Dunham was born, and a son, Henry, who was mentally disabled. All of Fanny Dunham's children and grandchildren lived with her and her second husband under one roof in Glen Ellyn, making their house very crowded.
When Dunham was three years old, her mother died after a lengthy illness. She had owned property in Chicago, but it was sold to pay off her grown children's debts and her doctor bills. Albert Dunham, who had been working as a tailor, could no longer afford to keep his house in the mostly-white suburb of Glen Ellyn and was forced to sell it. This created a rift between him and his wife's grown children that would last for years.
Dunham and her brother, Albert Jr., went to live with their father's sister, Lulu Dunham, in a tenement slum in Chicago, while their father tried to make a better living as a traveling salesman. Lulu Dunham worked as a beautician and sometimes her relatives would baby-sit Katherine while Albert Jr. was in school.
Introduced to Theater
One of those baby-sitters, Clara Dunham, had come to Chicago with her daughter, Irene, hoping to break into show business. They and other amateur performers began rehearsing a musical/theatrical program in the basement of their apartment building, and Dunham would watch. Although the program wasn't a success, it provided Dunham with her first taste of show business.
Dunham and her brother were very fond of their Aunt Lulu. However, because she was experiencing financial difficulties, a judge granted temporary custody of the children to their half-sister Fanny June Weir, and ordered that the children be returned to their father as soon as he could prove that he could take care of them.
Home Was Dismal
When Dunham was about five years old, her father married an Iowa schoolteacher named Annette Poindexter. They moved to Chicago and were granted custody of the children, and Dunham grew to love her step-mother. Her father bought a dry cleaning business in Chicago and all four members of the family worked there, as they lived in a few rooms in back of the business.
Family problems emerged when Albert Sr. began to physically abuse his wife and children and became increasingly violent. Consequently, Dunham longed to get away from him.
In high school, Dunham excelled in athletics. She also took dancing lessons and joined an after-school club that put on dance recitals. However, her father began demanding that she spend more time working at the dry cleaners, leaving her very little time for her extra-curricular activities.
Albert Jr., who was valedictorian of his senior class, received a scholarship and went away to college, against the wishes of his father. A short time later, Annette Dunham left her abusive husband and went to live in another part of the city. Dunham, who was still in high school, went with her. However, she was forced to continue working for her father's business, in order to help support her step-mother.
Dunham began attending junior college at the age of 17. During her second and final year there, her brother convinced her to take a Civil Service exam. If she passed, he said, she could become a librarian for the city. She passed the exam, graduated from junior college and began working at the Hamilton Park Branch Library, which was in a white, middle-class, suburban district of the city. The other librarians refused to eat lunch with her because she was black. However, she was not aware of the discrimination at first, because she was just glad to be free of her father.
Following in her brother's footsteps, Dunham enrolled in the University of Chicago, where she earned a master's degree and Ph.D. in anthropology. She also took dance lessons and participated in theater productions there. To help pay for her education, she opened a dance school in 1930.
In 1935, Dunham received a fellowship to conduct anthropological field research. She used the grant to study African-based dances in the Caribbean. She knew that each Caribbean island had its own unique form of dance. However, all of the dances had a common denominator: They all had been influenced in some way by the African slaves who had been brought there by various colonial overseers.
Dunham wanted to discover exactly what that common denominator was and which dance moves had come from Africa. She spent 18 months in the Caribbean, documenting its various dances.
She found that of all the Caribbean islands, the purest forms of African dance were in Haiti. She theorized that this was because Haiti had won its independence as a nation long before any other country had freed its African slaves. "Haitians ground their hips, circled their haunches, executed mesmerizing pelvic movements, and shrugged a ritual called 'zepaules, accenting their shoulders. It was all fundamental African technique, identical to what is done in, say, Dakar, and on which variations persist in African-American communities everywhere," wrote Paula Durbin in an article about Dunham that appeared in the January/February 1996 issue of Americas magazine.
Dunham fell in love with Haiti and its people, and later bought a home and opened a dance school and medical clinic on the island. She chronicled her work in the Caribbean in her book, Journey to Accompong, and wrote about her experiences in Haiti in her book, Island Possessed.
Created New Style
When Dunham returned to the United States, she combined the ethnic dances she had learned in the Caribbean with classical ballet and theatrical effects. The result was an entirely new art form, called the "Dunham technique." It has also been referred to as "Afro-Caribbean dance."
In 1940, she formed The Dunham Dance Company, an all-black dance troupe, to perform her technique. The company gave its first show in New York City and performed a revue called "Tropics and le Jazz Hot." Audiences in the United States had never seen anything like it. As Durbin wrote in the Americas article, "Everything moved— shoulders twitched, torsos arched, hips popped—and Martha Graham proclaimed Dunham 'the high priestess of the pelvic girdle.'" Graham is considered to be the founder of modern dance.
Dunham and her company toured North and South America in the 1940s and 1950s, fighting segregation along the way. In 1952, the management of a hotel in Brazil refused to let Dunham join her husband, John Pratt, in his hotel suite because she was black and he was white. Dunham, who had been married to Pratt since 1940, filed a lawsuit against the hotel, and as a result, the Brazilian legislature quickly passed a bill outlawing discrimination in public places. In addition to touring with her company, which disbanded in 1957, Dunham operated a dance school in New York from 1944 through 1954. She also choreographed many ballets, stage shows and films, including the movies, "Stormy Weather" and "Pardon My Sarong." During this same period, she and her husband adopted their daughter, Marie Christine.
Opened Illinois School
In the 1960s, Dunham visited East St. Louis, Illinois, a very poor African-American community in the southern part of the state. She wanted to do something to help the children there and decided to open a school. In 1967 she opened the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities. At the school, disadvantaged children can learn classical ballet, martial arts, the Dunham technique, foreign languages and, most importantly, self-discipline. The campus also includes the Dunham Museum, which houses costumes and other artifacts, and the Institute for Intercultural Communication.
Held Hunger Strike
In 1992 Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the exclusionary U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees. Due to political unrest in their homeland, thousands of Haitians fled their country for the United States in the early 1990s. In 1991 and 1992, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted some 35,000 Haitian refugees as they tried to enter the United States. Most of them were returned to Haiti.
Dunham has diabetes and arthritis and uses a wheelchair. She still lives and teaches in East St. Louis, Illinois, and has begun work on another autobiography.
Further Reading on Katherine Dunham
Ben-Itzak, Paul, "Dunham Legacy Stands At Risk," in Dance Magazine, January 1995, pp. 42, 44.
Durbin, Paula, "The First Lady of Caribbean Cadences," in Americas, 1996, pp. 36-41.
Greene, Carol, Katherine Dunham: Black Dancer, Childrens Press, Inc., 1992.