Katherine Mary Dunham (also known as Kaye Dunn, June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006) was an American dancer, choreographer, author, educator, and social activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the 20th century, and directed her own dance company for many years. She has been called the “matriarch and queen mother of black dance.”
While a student at the University of Chicago, Dunham took leave and went to the Caribbean to study dance and ethnography. She later returned to graduate and submitted a master’s thesis in anthropology. She did not complete the other requirements for the degree, however, and realized that her professional calling was performance.
At the height of her career in the 1940s and 1950s, Dunham was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America and was widely popular in the United States, where The Washington Post called her “dancer Katherine the Great”. For almost 30 years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only self-supported American black dance troupe at that time, and over her long career she choreographed more than ninety individual dances. Dunham was an innovator in African-American modern dance as well as a leader in the field of dance anthropology, or ethnochoreology. She also developed the Dunham Technique.
Katherine Mary Dunham was born on June 22, 1909, in a Chicago hospital and taken as an infant to her parents’ home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a village about 25 miles west of Chicago. Her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar. Her mother, Fanny June Dunham (née Taylor), who was of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage, died when Dunham was three years old. She had an older brother, Albert Jr., with whom she had a close relationship. After her father’s remarriage a few years later, the family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Joliet, Illinois, where her father ran a dry-cleaning business.
Dunham became interested in both writing and dance at a young age. In 1921, a short story she wrote when she was 12 years old called “Come Back to Arizona” appeared in volume 2 of The Brownies’ Book.
She graduated from Joliet Central High School in 1928, where she played baseball, tennis, basketball, track, served as vice-president of the French Club, and was on the yearbook staff. In high school she joined the Terpsichorean Club and began to learn a kind of modern dance based on the ideas of Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf von Laban. At the age of 15, she organized “The Blue Moon Café”, a fundraising cabaret to raise money for Brown’s Methodist Church in Joliet, where she gave her first public performance. While still a high school student, she opened a private dance school for young black children.
After completing her studies at Joliet Junior College, Dunham moved to Chicago to join her brother Albert, who was attending the University of Chicago as a student of philosophy. In a lecture by Robert Redfield, a professor of anthropology, she learned that much of black culture in modern America had begun in Africa. She consequently decided to major in anthropology and to focus on dances of the African diaspora. Besides Redfield, she studied under anthropologists such as A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir, and Bronisław Malinowski. Under their tutelage, she showed great promise in her ethnographic studies of dance.
In 1935, Dunham was awarded travel fellowships from the Julius Rosenwald and Guggenheim foundations to conduct ethnographic study of the dance forms of the Caribbean, especially as manifested in the Vodun of Haiti, a path also followed by fellow anthropology student Zora Neale Hurston. She also received a grant to work with Professor Melville Herskovits of Northwestern University, whose ideas of African retention would serve as a platform for her research in the Caribbean.
Her field work in the Caribbean began in Jamaica, where she lived for several months in the remote Maroon village of Accompong, deep in the mountains of Cockpit Country. (She later wrote Journey to Accompong, a book describing her experiences there.) Then she traveled on to Martinique and to Trinidad and Tobago for short stays, primarily to do an investigation of Shango, the African god who remained an important presence in West Indian heritage. Early in 1936, she arrived in Haiti, where she remained for several months, the first of her many extended stays in that country through her life.
While in Haiti, Dunham investigated Vodun rituals and made extensive notes in her research, particularly on the dance movements of the participants. Years later, after extensive studies and initiations, she became a mambo in the Vodun religion. She also became friends with, among others, Dumarsais Estimé, then a high-level politician, who became president of Haiti in 1949. Somewhat later, she assisted him, at considerable risk to her life, when he was persecuted for his progressive policies and sent in exile to Jamaica after a coup d’état.
Dunham returned to Chicago in the late spring of 1936, and in August was awarded a bachelor’s degree, a Ph.B., bachelor of philosophy, with her principal area of study named as social anthropology. She was one of the first African American women to attend this college and also to earn these degrees. In 1938, using materials collected during her research tour of the Caribbean, Dunham submitted a thesis, “The Dances of Haiti: A Study of Their Material Aspect, Organization, Form, and Function,” to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a master’s degree, but she never completed her course work or took examinations to qualify for the degree. Devoted to dance performance, as well as to anthropological research, she realized that she had to choose between the two. Although she was offered another grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to pursue her academic studies, she chose dance, gave up her graduate studies, and departed for Broadway and Hollywood.
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