Monday, December 12, 2016

Katherine Dunham

A review of her biography

Ruth Beckford’s biography of Katherine Dunham shows how she was a genuine heroine who introduced African dance styles to this country

If we listen to the Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, Rapp, Jazz, Reggae, or Latin Music, we are listening to the sounds that originated in Africa.  When people listened to African music, they weren’t doing this sitting down.  Ruth Beckford wrote her 1979, 130 page biography of Katherine Dunham, who was most responsible for introducing African dance styles to this country.

Katherine Dunham was born in 1909 in Chicago and raised in Joliet Illinois.  Dunham’s father was abusive and determined to prevent his daughter from dancing.  Dunham also had a lifelong problem with her knees that made it difficult for her to dance.  However, Dunham’s determination was strong and she earned a scholarship to study anthropology at the University of Chicago. 

At the University of Chicago Dunham continued to study dance and eventually opened her own studio.  She applied for a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship and gave a dance performance for her application.  Dunham first gave a sample of ballet, then a sample of modern dance, and then a sample of African dance.  Her performance blew the Rosenwald judges away, and Dunham won her fellowship to travel to Jamaca, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique.

Dunham was most inspired by the dance of Haiti.  Haiti had experienced a revolution against colonialism and slavery in the 19th century.  The Hatian people were proud of the fact that they maintained many of their African traditions.  Dunham studied the dances of Haiti for several months and eventually would live on the island.

Her studies on these islands led to the publication of three books: Journey to Accompong (1946), The Dances of Haiti (her master’s thesis published in 1947), and Island possessed (1969).

For about 40 years Dunham managed and performed with her African styled dance troop.  These performances took her around the world.  However, Dunham never missed a chance to protest against the racial injustice.

When she performed in the South, Jim Crow segregation was the law.  This meant that there was segregated seating for her audiences.  Upon entering a southern city, Dunham would meet with the NAACP or the Urban League in the morning.  Then, she would organize a demonstration in the afternoon against the segregated seating arrangements in the auditorium where she would perform.  If at least one Black person was not sitting in a white restricted area, Dunham would not perform. 

Dunham even brought a lawsuit in Sao Paulo, Brazil against discrimination.  This lawsuit prompted the Brazilian President to pass a law that prohibited discrimination in public places.

In her Negro Dance Troop she brought the Caribbean dance styles around the world.  She performed Negro Dance Evening and Haitian Suite.  In 1939 she opened Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem.  Folk dances and rhythms were presented with lavish costumes and a touch of American showbiz.  Dunham received her best reviews for Bal Negre, performed in 1946, featuring the dance “Shango.”   

Dunham angered the U.S. State department with her production Southland that portrayed lynching in the United States.  Southland would only be performed in Chile and Paris.

In 1967 Dunham decided to end her forty-year career touring the world with her dance company.  She moved to East St. Louis and opened a dance studio for the people of that city. 

On her first day in East St. Louis, she was recruiting gang members to learn the dance in a program sponsored by a local university.  That day there was a police round-up, and many of the gang members she hoped to recruit were taken into police custody.  This infuriated Dunham.  She attempted to organize a protest demonstration and went to the police station herself.  The police resented her protest and Dunham spent the night in jail.  Three months later the Mayor of East St. Louis presented Dunham with the key to the city.

In February of 1992 Dunham, at the age of 82, went on a 47 day fast in her home in East St. Louis.  The elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been overthrown.  Many Haitians fled their homeland in fear of the repression they expected.  The Administration of President William Clinton ordered Haitians seeking asylum to be sent back to Haiti.  Dunham only ended her fast when President Aristide visited her home and asked her to stop.

Dancing is an often neglected part of our lives.  Katherine Dunham dedicated her life to introducing the world to a style of dance people found electrifying.  While performing her craft she battled all the political and economic obstacles that stood in her path.  While most people do not know her name, she was a genuine heroine of our times.             

Katherine Dunham – A biography
Copyright 1979 by Ruth Beckford

Marcel Dekker, Inc.

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