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Katherine Dunham: Pioneer of the Ethnic Modern Dance Movement

Katherine Dunham: Pioneer of the Ethnic Modern Dance Movement

Katherine Dunham was a legendary anthropologist, dancer, choreographer and social activist who transformed the art of modern dance by combining ethnic influences with stunning dance technique. Here is her story.

Born on June 22, 1909, Katherine Dunham did not initially consider a career in dance. She did, however, grow up as both a rebel and an artist. She performed in her local Methodist Church, and at the age of eight, she shocked the elders of her church with her performance of inarguably non-religious songs.

As per her family’s wishes, she followed in the footsteps of her brother, Albert Dunham Jr., and pursued a career in teaching. She went on to obtain her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in anthropology at the University of Chicago; all the while, she studied under the prestigious dance instructors Ludmilla Speranzeva, Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page. After her graduation, she went on to found the Negro Dance Group.

Dunham caught the attention of the Rosenwald Foundation, who offered to fund her academic endeavors as she studied the anthropology of dance. She traveled to Trinidad and Jamaica as well as Haiti—the country that truly resonated with her.

Her revolution began in the 1930s, when she, inspired by the Haitian culture she had witnessed, began to craft ethnically-inspired pieces. In 1939, she was able to display her beautiful choreography at the Windsor Theater. What was intended to be a one-night event grew so popular that the pieces ran for 13 weeks straight.

Her art form had a powerful impact when she toured Europe with the Dunham Company in 1948. Many in the audience had never before witnessed non-white dancers, and Dunham's work was their first exposure to a brand new culture. They referred to the show as "phenomenal," and this was not simply because of the talent within it. Dunham had truly pioneered a whole new style of ethnically-influenced dance—and moreover, she had brought this movement to a place where dancers of her color had never been seen before.

Dunham utilized the fame and respect she received from her talent in the arts to create positive change and attempts to solve the social divisions caused by poverty and racism. She helped to shift the efforts of violent street gangs towards the powerful medium of the performing arts and turned around many lives for the better.

At the age of 82, Dunham performed a 47-day hunger strike in response to the US government's policies towards Haitian immigrants; and throughout her life, she aimed to raise awareness about Haitian culture.

As she neared the end of her career, she contributed to pieces that she’d inspired for the Alvin Ailey dance company and continued her anthropological research before she passed away at the age of 96.

Today, her legacy continues on, as the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities and Institute for Intercultural Communication continue to inspire and educate the public.

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