katherine dunham / queen mother of dance

exclusive feature
Asha Taylor
{Washington, DC}
The Liberator Magazine 4.1 #9, 2005


“There’s something powerful about one who can make you know them without ever speaking to you; there’s something divine about one who’s willing to share their body and spirit with the world.”

Who would have known the power and passion that lie in the mind of a young, black, woman from Joliet, Illinois? At 5’6”, 125 pounds, and 21 years old, Katherine Dunham had overcome so much, yet remained full of potential. Born into poverty on June 22, 1909, to a black American father, Albert Dunham, and a French Canadian and American Indian mother, Fanny June Guillaume Taylor, Katherine’s upbringing was rough. Her mother was 20 years her father’s senior and passed away when Katherine was only 5 years old. People in the neighborhood were appalled that Fanny would marry a black man, and once the two started having children, the community did everything from false accusations to throwing bombs at the house to force them to move. However, when Albert began standing guard all night long with his rifle, the neighbors learned that the Dunham family was there to stay.

After Fanny’s death, Albert had a hard time financially maintaining the household. He sent Katherine and her older brother Albert Jr. to stay with his sister Lulu Dunham. While living with her, the children were constantly relocating due to financial crises. Even though this was a time of lack, it was also a time when Katherine began getting exposure to the entertainment world. One cousin they lived with was an actress and used her home for rehearsals; while another cousin took Katherine to shows and introduced her to singers like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. She was also introduced to the works of the Cole and Johnson Dance Team.

Finally, Albert Dunham got himself on his feet when he started his own dry-cleaning business and re-married to a woman named Annette. The children returned home and were nurtured by her loyalty, love, and patience. Annette’s presence cushioned the often over-bearing and coldhearted ways of Katherine’s father, who had harbored bitterness ever since his wife had passed away. During high school, Katherine developed a love for performing and sports. However, the disintegration of her family prevented her from partaking in as many activities as she would have liked. Her stepmother left when she couldn’t handle Albert’s harshness any longer, and her older brother (and best friend) Albert Jr. received a scholarship to the University of Chicago. Facing the idea of being left alone with her father, Katherine sought her brother for solace. He promised to save up money to bring her to the University of Chicago. Until then, Katherine tried living with her stepmother, but she was struggling to make ends meet so Katherine began working with her father. This led to his obsessive control over her life. He made her work until she had time for nothing else besides school and work. Even when pursued by men, she was unable to date because her father intimidated them and kept her on such a rigid work schedule.

Once accepted into the University of Chicago, Dunham’s career began because she was liberated from her father’s strict control. Even though she had to deal with the racism of her co-workers while maintaining her grades, she managed to whole-heartedly pursue her passion of dance. At age 21, she started her own dance company with the help of two close friends, Ruth Page and Mark Turbyfill. She called the company Ballet Nègre. However, the company fell apart after the first performance at the Beaux Arts Ball, when no financial support offers came through. Her friends couldn’t afford to keep offering free services needed to keep the company going, and many of the dancers lost interest. After the collapse of the dance company, Dunham discovered another passion: cultural anthropology. Upon hearing a lecture, she became interested in discovering how dance evolved from African and Caribbean cultures. She wanted to explore the necessity and purpose of dance, and how it influenced contemporary dance. While studying with her mentor, Ludmila Speranzeva, Dunham shared her curiosity and desire to link and combine Afro-centric dances to that of ballet and modern. Speranzeva encouraged Dunham to reopen another school based on her fresh ideas and radical theory. This time she named the school the Negro Dance Group. The problem was that during this time, middle-class black Americans didn’t want anything to do with “Negro” culture. While performing a lead role in "La Guiablesse," Dunham caught the attention of Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald Stern from the Rosenwald Fund (a charity established by philanthropist Julius Rosenwald in 1917 to improve black education in the U.S.).

Dunham went to the interview for the fund, and presented her ideas in the form of a colorful, eclectic, and spiritual dance that drew from classical ballet, modern, and African movements. Mesmerized by her performance and breathtaking views on the connection between dance and anthropology, she was granted the money in 1935. This grant enabled her to become a pioneer of American, artistic, dance culture. At 25 years old, she was on her way. She traveled to the West Indies, with a special focus in Haiti, and studied the importance of dance in each culture. These studies gave her insight on contemporary American dance culture and deposited jewels of choreography that kept audiences mystified. In 1940, she formed a highly acclaimed all-black dance troupe that toured her works in the United States and in Europe. Her dance pieces include L'ag'ya (1938), Shango (1945), and the revues Tropical Revue (1943) and Bal Nègre (Black Dance, 1946). She also choreographed for 6 motion pictures and several Broadway shows. Her marriage to blue-eyed, Canadian, John Pratt in 1939 didn’t stop Dunham from living and transfusing her dream into the history of American dance and individuals that studied with her and under her direction. She opened the Dunham School of Dance in New York City in 1945 and became the first black choreographer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. There she choreographed Aïda (1963-64). In 1952, Dunham and Pratt adopted Marie Christine Columbier from Martinique. The 5-year-old became a beautiful addition to their family and to Dunham’s life.

Dunham’s legacy continues worldwide in the world and history of dance. Her form of dance, known as Dunham technique combines traditional ballet, African rituals, black rhythms, Caribbean and South American native dance, and modern dance. Her technique not only focuses on the incorporation of all these dance forms, but also the articulate movement of certain parts of the body independently from the rest. She has been technical cultural advisor to the president and the minister of cultural affairs of Senegal and started the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis in 1962, where blacks could learn more about African cultural history and participate in living arts. In the 1970s, Dunham became an artist in residence and professor at Southern Illinois University. She started a cultural arts program for disadvantaged youth. She has traveled 57 countries and 6 continents. She has left an indelible impression on the consciousness of all who are exposed to her work, and not only have an appreciation for dance, but an appreciation for culture and life.

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