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Wed, 06.22.1910

Katherine Dunham, Choreographer and Dancer

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham was born on this date in 1910. She was a Black choreographer and dancer.

Born in Chicago, Dunham received her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Chicago and later did extensive anthropological study, particularly in the Caribbean.  She began performing in 1931 in Chicago and then worked for the New York Labor Stage, where she composed dances for "The Emperor Jones," "Pins and Needles," and "Run, Li'l Chillun."  In 1936, Dunham received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship, with which she traveled and studied dance in the West Indies, particularly in Haiti.

In 1940, she formed a highly acclaimed all-Black dance troupe that toured her works in the United States and in Europe. She also choreographed for, and performed in, motion pictures and Broadway musicals.  Dunham opened the Dunham School of Dance in New York City, which trained dancers in classical ballet, African and Caribbean dance forms, anthropology, and other cultural arts. The school was an influential center of Black dance.  She became the first Black choreographer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

She acted as technical cultural adviser to the president and the minister of cultural affairs of Senegal. In the 1970s, Dunham went to Southern Illinois University as an artist in residence and later became a professor.  There she developed cultural arts programs to teach disadvantaged urban youth.   A scholar and influential leader in Black theatrical dance, her original technique emphasized the movement of certain body parts independently of the rest of the body.   Dunham also wrote articles for periodicals and authored several books.

Plagued by arthritis and poverty in the latter part of her life, Dunham made headlines in 1992 when she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U. S. policy that repatriated Haitian refugees. "It's embarrassing to be an American," Dunham said at the time.  Dunham's New York studio attracted illustrious students like Marlon Brando and James Dean who came to learn the "Dunham Technique," which Dunham herself explained as "more than just dance or bodily executions. It is about movement, forms, love, hate, death, life, all human emotions." She was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years before his death in 1986.

In her later years, she depended on grants and the kindness of celebrities, artists, and former students to pay for her day-to-day expenses.  Will Smith and Harry Belafonte were among those who helped her catch up on bills. Katherine Dunham died on June 4, 2006.

Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

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