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Katherine Dunham

Legendary dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham was born June 22, 1909, to an African American father and French-Canadian mother who died when she was young. At an early age, Dunham became interested in dance. However, she did not seriously pursue a career in the profession until she was a student at the University of Chicago.

During her studies, Dunham attended a lecture on anthropology, where she was introduced to the concept of dance as a cultural symbol. Intrigued by this theory, Dunham began to study African roots of dance and, in 1935, she traveled to the Caribbean for field research. Dunham was exposed to sacred ritual dances performed by people on the islands of Haiti and Jamaica. She returned to the United States in 1936 informed by new methods of movement and expression, which she incorporated into techniques that transformed the world of dance.

In 1940, she formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which became the premier facility for training dancers. Alumnae include Eartha Kitt, Marlon Brando and Julie Belafonte. Dunham is credited with introducing international audiences to African aesthetics and establishing African dance as a true art form. Called the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique, which she performed with her dance troupe in venues around the world. Her many original works include L’ag’ya, Shango and Bal Negre. She also choreographed and appeared in Broadway musicals, operas and the film Cabin in the Sky.

The Dunham troupe toured for two decades, stirring audiences around the globe with their dynamic and highly theatrical performances. These experiences provided ample material for the numerous books, articles and short stories Dunham authored.

Dunham accepted a position at Southern Illinois University in East St. Louis in the 1960s. During her tenure, she secured funding for the Performing Arts Training Center, where she introduced a program designed to channel the energy of the community’s youth away from gangs and into dance. Dunham was always a formidable advocate for racial equality, boycotting segregated venues in the United States and using her performances to highlight discrimination. She made national headlines by staging a hunger strike to protest the U.S. government’s repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants.

Throughout her distinguished career, Dunham earned numerous honorary doctorates, awards and honors. She was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors Award, the Plaque d'Honneur Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce Award, and a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Dunham passed away on Sunday, May 21, 2006 at the age of 96.

Accession Number

A2000.020

Sex

Female

Archival Photo 1
Interview Date

12/17/2000 |and| 2/11/2001

Last Name

Dunham

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

University of Chicago

Search Occupation Category
Archival Photo 2
First Name

Katherine

Birth City, State, Country

Glen Ellyn

HM ID

DUN01

Favorite Season

Summer

Sponsor

McCormick Tribune Foundation

State

Illinois

Favorite Vacation Destination

Haiti

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

6/22/1909

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Sole

Death Date

5/21/2006

Short Description

Choreographer, dancer, and dance instructor Katherine Dunham (1909 - 2006 ) is credited with introducing international audiences to African aesthetics and establishing African dance as a true art form. Called the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique, which she performed with her dance troupe in venues around the world.

Employment

Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre

Southern Illinois University

Main Sponsor
Favorite Color

Platinum

DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Katherine Dunham interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Katherine Dunham's favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Katherine Dunham moves to Chicago

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Katherine Dunham remembers her mother

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Katherine Dunham discusses her parents' age difference

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Katherine Dunham describes her father

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Katherine Dunham discusses her parents' interracial marriage

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Katherine Dunham describes her maternal grandmother

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Katherine Dunham describes her brother

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Katherine Dunham describes her personality

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Katherine Dunham discusses her brother's influence on her

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Katherine Dunham discusses her interest in dance

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Katherine Dunham describes her brother's education

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Katherine Dunham works as a librarian

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Katherine Dunham discusses her interest in anthropology

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Katherine Dunham mentions influential anthropologists

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Katherine Dunham discusses her Caribbean travels

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Katherine Dunham tells why she formed her own dance company

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Katherine Dunham moves to New York

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Katherine Dunham mentions her first marriage

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Katherine Dunham descibes why she accepts the voodoo religion

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Katherine Dunham develops her own dance technique

Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Katherine Dunham discusses 'Tropics and Le Jazz Hot'

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Katherine Dunham mentions students of her dance school

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Katherine Dunham describes the Dunham Technique

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Katherine Dunham's dance company travels Europe

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Katherine Dunham describes her involvement in her dance company

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Katherine Dunham discusses memorable life experiences

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Katherine Dunham capitalizes on her sex appeal

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Katherine Dunham discusses her mentor

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Katherine Dunham mentions her favorite works

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Katherine Dunham remarries and adopts daughter

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Katherine Dunham discusses her second husband

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Katherine Dunham discusses the importance of dance

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - Katherine Dunham discusses her work in Haiti

Tape: 3 Story: 13 - Katherine Dunham discusses her hopes for Haiti

Tape: 3 Story: 14 - Katherine Dunham moves to East St. Louis, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Katherine Dunham discusses East St. Louis, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Katherine Dunham discusses her life's cause

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Katherine Dunham discusses her future goals

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Katherine Dunham shares her hopes for African Americans

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Katherine Dunham describes the value of art

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Katherine Dunham discusses her legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham at Age Seventeen (circa 1926)

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Brother, Albert Jr.

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham Dances with Partner in 'Barrelhouse' in Paris (circa 1949)

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham with Husband, John Pratt, and Daughter, Marie-Christine in Paris (1951)

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Husband, John Pratt, at Hollywood Opening (1953)

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Husband, John Pratt (1938)

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Husband, John Pratt

Tape: 4 Story: 14 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham Performs 'Guitar Blues' with Partner, Vanoye Aikens (circa 1944)

Tape: 4 Story: 15 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham with Senegalese Percussionist, Mor Thiam, and His Wife, Kine at Katherine Dunham Museum (1972)

Tape: 4 Story: 16 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham with Composer, Eubie Blake, After a Performance of 'Treemonisha' (1972)

Tape: 4 Story: 17 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham Greets Visitors at the Katherine Dunham Museum (1979)

Tape: 4 Story: 18 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham Receives the Albert Schweitzer Award (1979)

Tape: 4 Story: 19 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham with President Ronald Reagan During Kennedy Center Awards Gala (1986)

Tape: 4 Story: 20 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham with Participants in the Divine Drumbeats Ritual at Habitation LeClerc, Haiti (1980)

Tape: 4 Story: 21 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Company in 'Lady With a Cigar'

Tape: 4 Story: 22 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham Receives the Commander of the Legion of Honor of Haiti (1961)

Tape: 4 Story: 23 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Adlai Stevenson Greet Childen at White House Conference on Children (1970)

Tape: 4 Story: 24 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham and Company Disembark Plane in Nice (1949)

Tape: 4 Story: 25 - Photo -- Young Katherine Dunham Rides in a Goat Cart

Tape: 4 Story: 26 - Photo -- Katherine Dunham with President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor