Katherine Dunham

(born 1910), choreographer, dancer, and scholar, an influential leader in black theatrical dance, whose original technique emphasized the movement of certain body parts independently of the rest of the body. 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 in the late 1930s, where she staged 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 Haiti.

In 1940 she formed a highly acclaimed all-black dance troupe that toured her works in the United States and in Europe. Her dance pieces include L'ag'ya (1938), Shango (1945), and the revues Tropical Revue (1943) and Bal Nègre (Black Dance, 1946). She also choreographed for, and performed in, motion pictures and Broadway musicals. Dunham opened the Dunham School of Dance (New York City, 1945-1955; mid-1960s), 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 also became the first black choreographer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City when she choreographed Aïda, performed during the Metropolitan's (1963-1964) season.

From 1965 to 1966 she acted as technical cultural advisor 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. Dunham wrote articles for periodicals and authored several books, including Katherine Dunham's Journey to Accompong (1946), about her studies in Jamaica; Dances of Haiti (1983); and her autobiography, A Touch of Innocence (1959).

Return to INDEX