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Katherine Dunham

Born: June 22, 1909
Passed Away: May 21, 2006 (aged 96)

The Face of Dear Lindy

k.dunham.190If Katherine Dunham looks familiar, that’s because she is the face of our very own Dear Lindy.

In finding a portrait to depict Dear Lindy, we hoped to find someone who was not a known Lindy Hopper, but was someone who looked like they could have danced at the Savoy Ballroom in the height of the Jazz Era.

We’re so glad that we found Katherine – who not only represents those things, but also so so much more. Her amazing life story is an inspiration! Running parallel to some of the Vernacular Jazz dancers that we all know and love, with enormous contributions to dance, to equality, and to creativity, Katherine Dunham is definitely a Vintage Dancer You Should Know.

We hope to make you proud, Katherine!

Dance Forms:

Katherine Dunham Dance

  • Caribbean dances, including Haitian Vodun and Martinique Fighting Dance
  • Ballet
  • Spanish, East Indian, Javanese, and Balinese dance forms
  • Modern dance

Fun facts

  • Dunham’s mother, Fanny June Dunham (née Taylor), who was of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage.
  • The impresario Sol Hurok, manager of Dunham’s troupe for a time, once had Ms. Dunham’s legs insured for $250,000. He needn’t have bothered. Despite 13 knee surgeries, Ms. Dunham danced professionally for more than 30 years.
  • Ms. Dunham saw the Dunham Technique as a spiritual as well as physical discipline. “Anyone who seriously works in Dunham Technique,” she said in 1988, “comes out not only a good professional dancer, but also a humanist.”

The Dunham Technique

What sets The Dunham Technique apart from contemporaries like Martha Graham and José Limón was the fusion of classical dance technique with Afro-Caribbean styles. Her entirely original technique is characterized by classical lines, contrasted by a torso capable of both isolations and undulations, and using a wider range of tempos and rhythmical styles than most other Western concert dance forms of the time.

You can visit the Library of Congress archives to download examples of the Dunham Technique.

Haitian “Yonvalou” – from the Library of Congress Archives:

Life and Times

  • While still a high-school student, she opened a private dance school for young black children.
  • She earned a bachelor degree in the social anthropology, studying dance, especially Caribbean dance forms – doing field research in several countries, including Jamaica, Haiti, Martinique and to Trinidad and Tobago.
  • She didn’t complete her master’s degree – instead choosing dance on Broadway and in Hollywood.
  • In 1931, when she was only 21, Dunham formed a group called Ballets Nègres, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States. The group performed a single, well-received performance before being disbanded.
  • She played temptress Georgia Brown in George Balanchine’s Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky, staring Ethel Waters.
  • The Dunham Troupe toured much of North America and around the world, performing in more than 50 countries in Europe, North Africa, South America, Australia, and East Asia.
  • She and her troupe also performed in several movies: Carnival of Rhythm (1941), Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), the Abbott and Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), Casbah (1948), the Italian film Botta e Risposta (1950), Mambo (1954 – Italy), Die Grosse Starparade (1954 – Germany), and Música en la Noche (1955 – Mexico).
  • Dunham was a prolific scholar, writing several autobiographical and fiction books, and sometimes lectured on anthropological topics at universities and scholarly societies.

  • The Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre ran classes in dance, Caribbean research, cultural studies and more, and had several famous students, including Eartha Kitt, James Dean, and Sidney Poitier. Marlon Brando and Charles Mingus would often drop by to play music.
  • In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Dunham to be technical cultural adviser to the government of Senegal in West Africa. Her mission was to help train the Senegalese National Ballet and to assist President Leopold Senghor with arrangements for the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar.
  • Dunham had a great ability to leverage the press in her activism. After being refused rooms in a Brazilian hotel, she made sure the incident was publicized. In response, the Afonso Arinos law was passed in 1951 that made racial discrimination in public places a felony in Brazil.
  • At the age of 83, she went on a highly publicized 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S.’s forced repatriation of Haitian refugees.

Influence

As one of her biographers, Joyce Aschenbrenner, 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”, and the Dunham Technique is still taught to anyone who studies modern dance.

Alvin Ailey, who stated that he first became interested in dance as a professional career after having seen a performance of the Katherine Dunham Company as a young teenager of 14 in Los Angeles, called the Dunham Technique “the closest thing to a unified Afro-American dance existing.”

Not only did Dunham shed light on the cultural value of black dance, but she clearly contributed to changing perceptions of blacks in America by showing society that as a black woman, she could be an intelligent scholar, a beautiful dancer, and a skilled choreographer. As Julia Foulkes pointed out, “Dunham’s path to success lay in making high art in the United States from African and Caribbean sources, capitalizing on a heritage of dance within the African Diaspora, and raising perceptions of African American capabilities.”

K Dunham Quote

 

References for this post

Wikipedia

SF Gate

Dance Spirit Magazine

KDCAH – Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities

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