Katherine Dunham, 1909-2006

  • Katherine-Dunham-WWP

Woman Category: Academy & Education, Activism & Feminism, Arts, and Theater & CinemaWoman Tags: Abolitionist, African-American Women, Dancer, and NYC Women

  • HerStory

    A famous and influential dancer and choreographer, known as “the mother of black dance.”

    Katherine Mary Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909. Her father was a descendant of slaves from West Africa, and her mother was a mix of French-Canadian and Native-American heritage.
    From a young age, she was interested in writing and dance. She went to study anthropology at the University of Chicago. She continued studying classical ballet and forming her first dance group, which was one of the first companies of all-black dancers.
    At 23, she opened her first dance school, the Negro Dance Group. Three years later, she chose to focus on dance after receiving a grant and visiting in the Caribbean islands and Haiti as an anthropology student. Her field of mastery was in the dance rituals of the African diaspora in the Caribbean. Her studies inspired her unique technique, which revolutionized the world of dance by combining the Caribbean and African ritual rhythm and movement, with European modern and ballet dancing.
    Dunham and the Negro Dance Group performed together and separately in Chicago and New York City with choreography created by Dunham. They were well-received by critics and crowds. After the immense success which led them to Broadway, she opened the “Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre” near Times Square in NYC. The school taught dance, drama, performing arts, applied skills, humanities, cultural studies, and Caribbean research, and was an inspiration for art schools worldwide.
    Dunham and her dance company toured all over the world for many years, introducing her novel technique of dance. Due to financial difficulties, they returned to the US, and Dunham did choreographic commissions across the US and Europe.
    Among the many firsts she acclaimed are one of the first African-American women to earn a degree from the University of Chicago, the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company, the first African-American to choreograph for the New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
    In 1967 she officially retired but continued to choreograph. She died in 2006, a month before her 97th birthday.

    “I used to want the words ‘She tried’ on my tombstone. Now I want ‘She did it.’”

    “I used to want the words ‘She tried’ on my tombstone. Now I want ‘She did it.’”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • While in Haiti, she hasn’t only studied Vodun rituals, but also participated and became a mambo, female high priest in the Vodun religion.
    • She was an activist, and having encountered many racial problems and discrimination while touring America with her group, she always took a stand. In Brazil, after the company had been refused rooms in a hotel, Dunham made sure the incident became public, which led to legislation against racial discrimination in public places in Brazil in 1951.
    • In 1992, at the age of 83, she opened a 47-day hunger strike to protest discrimination by US foreign policy against the Haitian boat-people. She stopped only when the exiled Haitian president came to ask to do so.
    • She published two autobiographies, one fiction novel, and numerous articles. During her career, she participated in 13 movies and countless plays, musicals, and dance performances.
    • She was married twice and adopted a girl with her first husband.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books she wrote
    * Books about her


    * The Heritage Award from the National Dance Association (1971)
    * The Albert Schweitzer Music Award "for a life's work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity." (1979)
    * The Kennedy Center Honors (1983)
    * Distinguished Service Award from The American Anthropological Association (1986)
    * The Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award (1987)
    * National Medal of Arts (1989)
    * "Outstanding Leadership in Dance Research" by the Congress (2005)
    * More than a dozen honorary doctorates from various American universities

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Booking.com


  • Katherine Dunham Performing Ballet Creole (1952) | British Pathé

    Check out the famous American dancer, Katherine Dunham, performing West Indian Creole music in a ballet at the Cambridge Theatre in London.

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    (FILM ID:1291.19)

    Katherine Dunham and company performs West Indian Creole music in form of ballet, at the Cambridge Theatre, London.

    C/U Hammers tapping on drums. M/S Drummer. L/S Conga. C/U Girl dancer wearing striped hat. M/S Girls dancing, drummer in foreground. C/U Drums stopping. C/U Katherine Dunham taking off coat. M/S Katherine Dunham dancing. C/U Drums. (2 shots) C/U Dancer. M/S Drummers (2 shots), C/U Drums. C/U Drummer. C/U Katherine Dunham taking hat off and dancing. C/U Male dancer shaking.

    C/U Katherine Dunham dancing into villain's arms. C/U Another dancing. M/S Drums beating. M/S Katherine Dunham in villain's arms another dancer pulls them apart. M/S Pulling dancer apart. C/U Katherine Dunham on floor. M/S Two dancers preparing to fight. C/U Drums beating. M/S Two dancers fighting (2 cut-in shots Katherine Dunham). villain is killed.

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  • Katherine Dunham in "Rara Tonga", which premiered in 1937. Photo credit - Library of Congress.

  • Citations and Additional References:
    KDCAH website.
    Britannica website.
    Wikipedia page.