Katherine Dunham’s Brilliant Legacy

Oct 13, 2009

I think people have lost something—the idea of what dance is. Everybody seems to be in it for matter of personal pleasure, but there is more to it than that, such as expressing your culture, expressing the meaning your life, the meaning of the people you came from, your family, and your roots, and that kind of thing. Dance does this, it’s in there, we just have to take it out and use it. –Katherine Dunham

In 2009, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Katherine Dunham’s birth. Heralded as the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her contributions to the field of dance and anthropology are still felt to this day. While not a jazz dancer per se, her fieldwork and choreography, along with the codification of the Dunham technique, have greatly influenced jazz dance as we know it.

Katherine Dunham–Dancer, Anthropologist, Writer, Activist

Katherine Dunham was born in 1909 in Chicago, IL. After her mother died when she was 4, she and her brother, Albert Jr., moved in with relatives as their father worked as a salesman. In these early years, she would secretly attend vaudeville shows at the Grand and Monogram theaters, which inspired her to become a performer.

She entered high school in 1922, where she ran track and played basketball, but what she wanted most was to join the Terpsichorean Club, a group that put on dances and musicals. She yearned to study ballet, but unfortunately it was not offered as part of the school curriculum. At the age of 8, she organized a cabaret to raise money for the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She named the show “Blue Moon Café,” and performed a gopak, a Ukrainian dance.

In 1928, she enrolled at the University of Chicago, where she studied anthropology, and continued performing. In 1935, she accepted a fellowship to study dance and anthropology in the Caribbean. Upon her return in 1937, she began to incorporate African and Caribbean movement in her technique. She is considered one of the founders of the field of dance anthropology.

Leaving Chicago, she and her troupe appeared on Broadway in productions like “Le Hot Jazz,” “Tropics,” “Bal Nègre” and in George Balanchine’s “Cabin in the Sky.” She appeared in films such as “Star Spangled Rhythm,” “Carnival of Rhythm” and “Stormy Weather.” She always appeared in costumes created by her husband, Canadian-born designer John Pratt, whom she married in 1949 when they adopted Marie-Christine, a 14-month-old French baby.

From the 40s to the 60s, Dunham and her dance troupe toured to 57 countries of the world. In 1963, Dunham became the first African-American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. The following year, she moved to East St. Louis, where she opened the Performing Arts Training Center to help the underserved community. She passed away in 2006.

Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey

One of the most prominent dancers Katherine Dunham influenced was Alvin Ailey and his company. As a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who performed Dunham’s work in the company, Joan Peters remembers her first encounters between Dunham and Ailey. “Mr. Ailey was always very, very fond of Ms. Dunham since I can remember. Alvin would come to New York and come to the Dunham School, and he would take class… He loved the way it made the body strong—he always talked about it—the strength, the technique it gave dancers.”

Alvin Ailey felt so passionate about Dunham’s work that he mounted an entire evening of her choreography. Denise Jefferson, Director of the Ailey School, recalls the program that Ailey created. “I think the biggest project I remember was when Alvin collaborated with Ms. Dunham and created a whole evening of her work, ‘The Magic of Katherine Dunham,’ and it was the centerpiece of our season at that time, and it was quite a stunning production. He felt that she was very important in his life as a symbol of what an African-American in dance could do. The fact that she was able to perform in legitimate theaters with her company let him know that he could do the same. She was quite an icon for him, and it meant a great deal that he could produce her work with his company.”

Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, Dunham’s daughter, adds, “You have Cleo Parker Robinson, but Alvin was really the only one who took over some of her creations.”

Some of Ailey’s works that incorporate the Dunham technique include “Blues Suite,” “Cry,” “Masekela Language,” “Survivors,” and his masterpiece, “Revelations.”

The Dunham Technique and its Influence on Jazz

The Dunham technique influenced jazz and modern, so much so that many dancers come to me and say, “Now I understand that some of these movements that we were doing in modern, were actually from the Dunham technique!” [It is] one of the most fantastic techniques in the world! – Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt

Dunham’s technique is taught at the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis and in workshops across the country, but one of the main places that the technique is preserved today is at the Ailey School in New York City. “The Dunham technique has been in the school’s curriculum since its founding in 1970,” says Jefferson. “We are very fortunate to have Joan Peters, who has studied with Ms. Dunham, and who has been certified to teach the technique. We have noticed that—particularly in the summer when we have so many students who come from other cities, colleges and universities—they love the Dunham class. We always end up adding at least one additional section of Dunham in the summer, which is just really exciting for us.”

Peters, who has been teaching at the Ailey School for 31 years, emphasizes the strength that the Dunham technique builds. “The style of the Dunham technique is Afro-Caribbean. It can be very Afro. It can be very modern, it can cover jazz—the technique covers a whole lot. It moves from many areas. There are sections that can be very balletic. Ms. Dunham formed this technique to make dancers’ bodies very strong, so that no matter what form of dance that you have to do, the body will be strong enough to do it,” says Peters.

Dunham Pratt echoes the idea of the strength of Dunham-trained dancers. “A Dunham dancer can learn any technique,” she says. Dunham Pratt also explains that after Dunham’s company disbanded, simply having been a member of the troupe was enough to get the dancer a job. “When they knew that they came from the Dunham Company, they did not need to audition,” she says.

It is this emphasis on strength that has attracted many dancers to incorporate the Dunham technique into their routine. As a student, Peters had the unique opportunity to see many great personalities of Broadway, theater and cinema work with Dunham. “Teachers like Peter Gennaro and Fred Benjamin came through the studio at times and studied. Many of them were in there taking classes: Chita Rivera, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Eartha Kitt and James Dean. Many, many stars came through. They were all in there… People loved the strength [they achieved]—that kept people coming back. That was something Ms. Dunham stressed—that the dancers be strong,” says Peters.

The influence of the Dunham technique can be found in many genres of dance, but her contribution to jazz should not be minimized. Dr. Glory Van Scott, who was a Principal Dancer with the Dunham company, echoes the vast influences that the Dunham technique has in contemporary jazz. “The contractions and the way the torso is moved is very much from Dunham. A lot of it comes from the culture—jazz, the juba, blues. Dunham developed ways to move. Her contractions were very much hers, not Graham’s, not Humphrey’s. The isolations that she developed were also unique; when you do a jazz walk, you don’t move everything at once. [This all] came from Ms. Dunham!”

Vanoye Aikens, Katherine Dunham’s main dance partner, performed with her from 1949 until the disbandment of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in 1962 in the finale performance of Dunham’s “Bamboche!” on Broadway. He remembers the unique relationship the Dunham Company had with jazz. “We did every technique, every kind of dance you could think of. We had pieces of jazz. We weren’t known as [a jazz company] but the third act always had some jazz. The third act concerned our American culture, which included jazz. We weren’t doing bee-bop. We were not tap dancers. But jazz was a part of the program…We did things that recreated different periods of the 20s and 30s, or moods or blues, like the Charleston, different periods of jazz,” says Aikens.

“Katherine Dunham influenced jazz very heavily. Many times I will see things in a jazz performance and know where it came from,” says Peters.

The Legacy

Katherine Dunham’s contributions have been felt all across the dance world. She has created and codified a technique that has influenced other techniques, dancers and choreographers. She developed the idea of dance as a cultural text. She paved the way for many other dancers and choreographers during a time when opportunities were limited for African-American artists, and showed them what was possible. She showcased the value of cultural dance, which inspired generations of dancers to create a new picture of American dance. “She showed a whole array of dance, a whole culture, many cultures, that [helped form] black dance… She dispelled a lot of prejudice and narrowness. What she did was not done. She was a comet,” says Van Scott.

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One response to “Katherine Dunham’s Brilliant Legacy

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