Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham

Hailed by critics as the “Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance,” Katherine Dunham started the first permanent, self-subsidized American black dance troupe and established black modern dance as an art form in its own right.

“Before Katherine Dunham, the only kind of black dance was tap,” said dancer Alvin Ailey in a 1988 interview. Dunham’s work changed the scene for black dance, and influenced dancers of all colors.

In this article, you’ll learn more about :

  • Katherine Dunham’s Biography

  • Katherine Dunham’s Work

  • Influenced by Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham’s Biography

Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois outside of Chicago. After her mother died in 1914, her father went through some financial troubles and sent young Katherine and her older brother Albert to live with relatives in Chicago. Some of their cousins were performers who introduced them to the arts and gave Dunham her first taste of the stage.

In 1928, she moved to Chicago with the help of her brother to go to school for anthropology. She also took dance classes, performed in several local productions and started a short-lived ballet company for black dancers. During one of her anthropology lectures, Dunham discovered that many dances during her time had origins in Africa. She began studying dance as a cultural symbol and its anthropological roots. In 1935, she went to the Caribbean for nine months to study and film native dance on fellowship, where she learned some of the sacred dance rituals of Haitian villagers. She would eventually call Haiti her second home and adopted Voodoo as her religion.

Katherine Dunham’s Work

Katherine Dunham in 1963

After returning to the US, Dunham quickly went to work weaving everything she learned into ballet and modern dance that resulted into what is now known as the Dunham Technique.

“What I tried to do,” she said in a 2002 interview, “is take the meaning and the feeling and the intensity of the things that were portrayed and prepare them with a well-trained company so that they would convey to the audience the full meaning of that particular ritual or act.”

Influenced by Katherine Dunham

One of Dunham’s biographer’s wrote, “Today, it is safe to say, there is no American black dancer who has not been influenced by the Dunham Technique, unless he or she works entirely within a classical genre.” Dunham’s work as both a dancer and cultural anthropologist is responsible for the creation of jazz, different types of fusion and, most notably, hip-hop.

Some of her more notable scholars:

  • Talley Beatty

  • Camille Yarbrough

  • Janet Collins

  • Alvin Ailey

  • Tommy Gomez
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