“Go within every day and find the inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle”
Katherine Dunham was born on June 22,1909 in Chicago, to an African American father and a French Canadian mother. She sang in her local Methodist Church in Joliet; but for a financial crisis at her church, she might never have sung anything but gospel songs. At age eight, she amazed and scandalized the elders of her church by doing a performance of decidedly non-religious songs at a cabaret party, in order to raise money. She never thought about a career in dance. Instead, she consented to her family’s wish that she become a teacher and followed her brother, Albert Dunham Jr. to the University of Chicago, where she became one of the first African American women to attend this University and earned bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology.
She formed a dance group that performed in concert at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934 and with the Chicago Civic Opera company 1935–1936. In 1938 she joined the Federal Theater Project in Chicago and composed a ballet. Two years later she formed an all-black company, which began touring extensively by 1943.
Katherine Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930’s by going to the roots of black dance and rituals transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all. She was a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She showed the world that African American heritage is beautiful. She completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline. She is credited for bringing these Caribbean and African influences to a European-dominated dance world.
Dunham’s first school was in Chicago. In 1944 she rented Caravan Hall, Isadora Duncan’s studio in New York, and opened the K.D. school of Arts and Research. In 1945 she opened the famous Dunham School at 220 W 43rd Street in New York where such artists as Marlon Brando and James Dean took classes. She then founded the Katherine Dunham Dance group – which later developed into the famous Katherine Dunham Company – devoted to African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance. Miss Dunham worked as a director in the Federal Theater Project, the government-sponsored relief program for artists that also nurtured such talents as Orson Welles and John Houseman. She co-directed and danced in Carib Song at the Adelphi Theater in New York in 1945, and was producer, director, and star of Bal Nègre at the Belasco Theater in New York in 1946.
Katherine Dunham was always a formidable advocate for racial equality, refusing to perform at segregated venues in the United States and using her performances to highlight discrimination. She was also politically active on both domestic and international rights issues and made national and international headlines by staging a hunger strike of 47 days in 1993 at the age of 82, to protest the U.S. government’s repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants. She attempted to raise people’s consciousness in the United States about issues in Haiti.
Katherine Dunham was a woman far ahead of her time and her technique became “a way of life”. Katherine Dunham died on May 21 2006.