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A tribute to Black History #2: Katherine Dunham

Katherin Dunham
Katherin Dunham

Continuing with my tribute to Black artists & entertainers, I had to feature this lady. Ms. Katherine Dunham was truly a "lady after my own heart".  

Ms. Dunham, also known as the "Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance", was an accomplished songwriter, choreographer, educator, author, as well as a dancer. A true multi-tasker if ever there was one. During her many travels throughout Europe & America, Ms. Dunham had one of the most notable & successful dance & performing careers of the 20th century. 

Katherine Dunham became a leader & innovator of a particular style of dance, called ethno-choreology, which she developed through studying Caribbean & Afro-centric dance, religion, & cultural norms. She used her knowledge of Anthropology to perfect the techniques & style of ethno-choreology, which was eventually codified into the field of Dance Anthropology and more specifically, the Dunham Technique.  

In the early 1940s, she lived in Haiti, where she studied Voodoo rituals & was later ordained as a mambo priestess in the Vaudon religion. She eventually returned to the United States where she began incorporating many of the cultural, religious, rhythms & style of Caribbean dance with that of traditional dance styles, such as ballet, modern, etc.  Her purpose was to "dispel some of the rigid stereotypes of what people perceived black dance should be".

As a young girl at the age of 15, Ms. Dunham started her own private dance school for young black children. She herself would go on to study ballet under Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera & prima ballerinas from the Moscow Theater.  At 21, she formed Ballet Negres, the first black ballet company in the USA.

Throughout her career, Ms. Dunham was also a political figure, in that she often used her choreography as an expression of opposition to variant forms of discrimination. For instance, she refused to sign a lucrative Hollywood contract because she would have to replace some of her more darker-skinned dancers. On another occasion, in the Southern USA in the 1940s, she refused to do a show when she learned that black residents of the town were not allowed to buy tickets & in Tennesse, after a performance, she told the audience she would not return until they were completely desegregated.

On other occasions outside the United States, she has been refused hotel rooms in Sao Paulo, Brazil, because of her race. She made sure to publicize this incident & eventually, the Afonso Arinos law was passed in 1951, in Brazil.  Because of her political stands, Ms. Dunham was often opposed by the US State Department & as such, she experienced diplomatic challenges while on tour outside the US. 

Her marriage was no less controversial at the time when she married John Thomas Pratt, a leader in the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers, who was white. Together, for the next 47 years, her husband would be her manager & artistic collaborator & assist her with founding the Katherine Dunham Company, which was the first African American modern dance company.

Katherine Dunham has been featured as a solo dancer, a guest star, & choreographer, for such works as The Emperor Jones, Cabin in the Sky, & Woman with a Cigar. Her dance troupe would eventually spend most of the 1950s in Europe, enjoying wide revues & acceptance.  In between Europe & America, she had been featured in opening acts in Las Vegas, in Hollywood (Green Mansions and The Bible), & even on tv, where she appeared in the movie Casbah, which was an NBC first-ever hour long special.

In 1963, Katherine Dunham became the first African-American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, with the production of Aida. She retired in 1967 after a performance at Harlem's Apollo Theater in New York City. On May 21, 2006, at the age of 96, Katherine Dunham died in her sleep in New York City, from natural causes. She lived a vibrant, full life, to say the least.


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