In the Media
From KETC, LIVING ST. LOUIS producer Anne-Marie Berger traces Katherine Dunham's life... Although it was broadcast shortly after Dunham's death in May 2006 at age 96, the profile contains what is believed to have
been her last interview, in October 2005.
Published in IamEStL The Magazine Jan / Feb 2016
The IamEStL Launch Event held at the Katherine Dunham Museum
Event held January 2016
Published in IamEStL The Magazine March / April 2016
by: Melony McGant
Black History: Dance Icon Miss Katherine Dunham #OPRAHLegend
Jan 31, 2016
Honoring Black History: Dance Icon Miss Katherine Dunham #OPRAHLegend
Katherine Dunham Speaks Out on Dunham Technique, Today's World Violence Leaders, and Hope by Melony McGant .
Anthropologist, choreographer, writer and humanitarian Katherine Dunham has been called a visionary, a pioneer, and a living legend. She has been a major force in dance, and is best known for incorporating African American, Caribbean, African, and South American movement style themes into her ballets. She has appeared in more than 57 countries around globe, received recognition from UNESCO as well as heads of state, and is the recipient of hundreds of awards and honorary doctorates including the U.S. Presidential Award, Kennedy Center Honors, the Albert Schweitzer Award, Essence Magazine Awards, the National Black Theatre Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, and was one of Oprah's Legends.
Originally recorded in 2002 at the Miss Katherine Dunham's residence in NYC, portions of this conversation have appeared in African Voices Magazine (a much longer version) and Tribes Magazine. In this interview with Melony McGant, Miss Dunham shares her heart, and hopes for a World of Peace, as she passes us the baton.
Miss Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago on 22 June, 1909 and left this Earth Realm and Ascended to the heaven Realm on May 21, 2006. She Is Re-membered with Love!
MM: It's been said that the Dunham Technique has strong implications and affiliations to the "other world."
KD: I feel that to know Dunham Technique you have to be willing to accept the holistic view of life. That is the body, mind and spirit work together. They don't work separately from each other. They grow together and unite. You have to be aware that these things do not operate alone, they operate together. So when you are deeply into Dunham Technique and are performing the choreography or are teaching, or learning, then all of those parts of your body begin to sing. And they begin to sing not in solo voices but in unison. It's like striking a wonderful chord and the response from the person who is receiving is so great that the teacher grows from it too. You cannot be a teacher of Dunham Technique without receiving back from the pupil or the person that you teach.
MM: Sometimes the student could get lost out there in their own meditation and become ecstatic. .How can a teacher know when to bring them back?
KD: By identification. By being able to identify with others. The good teacher is so sensitive, so willing to know and love, and be a part of ... The open minded student feels that. It's like the audience. The audience wouldn't be there if they didn't want to be there. The minute you step on to the stage you have to feel their awareness and willingness and gather it into your whole being. Every move that you make goes out with love and with an understanding of body, mind and spirit being united into one feeling, being, one "itness," so that you are a successful performer and your audience is able to receive with an open self.
MM: How can a teacher help a student understand that?
KD: I'd say don't talk about it. Just be it. Do it and be it. A lot of teachers try to explain. There's a little explanation, maybe. If you help your student eat the right thing, breath the right thing, feel the right thing, be aware of good things. It can help ... For instance, you might suggest that your student attend a concert that will immediately fit into their needs. Knowing the needs of other people is one of the hard things about BEING. I don't say to a student don't do this or don't do that. I just try to show them. You know what was so wonderful about Erich Fromm ... He'd ask me questions instead of telling me how to be over my malaise or unhappiness or whatever it was, he'd ask me questions that would lead me to the Balm and Gilead for me. And that I think is what a good friend or a true psychoanalyst, a truly worthy element in your life does ... It is to guide you through love.
MM: How do you feel about what's happening in the World"?
KD: What's happening in the world today is very, very hard on me. It is so awful, so terrible, so painful and so many people suffering. It's a fact. It's here with us. It's ridiculous to think that your government is going to ease your pain. As I look at it I say ... For God's sake I say don't go and kill to compensate for killing.
MM: This is a hard question for me to ask. Do you have any anger about anything?
KD: Anger. Oh yes, that's a part of activism. If I do not approve of what you are doing, then I will do everything I can to stop it. I will bring all of my strength to stop it. I am not in agreement, I am not in accord ... I am angry at what is happening in this world today. I wouldn't be me if I tried to suppress that anger, I'd be false ... hypocritical. I don't have to put it on anyone else. You don't have to be angry with me if that's not the way you feel. But above all don't try to stop me from being angry.
MM: If you were speaking to our world leaders, what would you say?
KD: Well to most of them I would say: "You do not belong in a position of leadership. You have not overcome self. You don't really love humanity, yourself included. You are not a leader. Stop and look at it and study it, realize it and change it. Change yourself or step aside and help someone else take the position that you feel you are fulfilling but you're not." And I'd say: "Stop and think and don't try to put aside, or shut your eyes to those things that are showing you where you've made mistakes. Open your heart to these things inside and help. Be sure that your every breath, every thought, every movement, every deed is being helpful to someone or something. Be sure that you are honest and true."
MM: How do you feel about this violence?
KD: It should have no place in human living.
MM: Are all religions the same? Not the dogma, but the spirit?
KD: I think that intellectually they sound as though they are the same. Intellectually they all say we believe in our God. We want to do what that one God says do but we see errors that are committed because between God and action comes man. And man is by no means perfect creature.
MM: And the United States?
KD: The United States is a great big hypocrite bully. Our God has chosen to give us ... .a means of conquering ... but when you are power driven, you are bound to turn to destruction and violence.
MM: What do you want to tell my generation and the children ... those who come after. What should we be doing?
KD: You should be aware. And of course always be forgiving. You can judge but I don't feel that we have within us the right to hold forth any blessings. God does that. And I would say be aware and be giving. Know how to take, how to receive and how to give. Be sure that both are operating always in your life. If you feel strongly about a cause, don't push it on people but be willing to defend it when it is necessary. Just one word, that one word love is strongest. Know all the different phases of love and have them all in your life. And be able to live with them.
MM: Could you give me a couple of examples of love that you were thinking of ?
KD: Well, you certainly have to know self-love. Erich (Fromm) was probably the founder of that... belief in yourself and a love of yourself. Be kind and gentle with yourself and everything else. Try to avoid, and succeed in avoiding injury to others. Live life with kindness and live life with love.
MM: Is there any hope?
KD: I feel that this present civilization is just about over. I feel that there is a hope in some people, elements, I won't say remnants ... things that are still there, that they can manage to be together after a period of rest and growth. And choose to grow in the sunshine of hope and love. Yes then there is hope for another civilization on this earth. Of course there is always a chance that out in the universe there are some other earths that could come and smash this one into nothing. I see no reason why there shouldn't be another chance for man because he is a creature of God but I'm not counting on it. I'm counting on trying to help save and give hope to those whose eyes are open now and who are suffering.
MM: Is there anything that I can personally do for you? Or anything that I personally need to know ?
KD: I think that you are one of the people who has the fabric of knowledge and I think that you should develop it and continue on your mission of nurturing love and furthering love and that you must spend a little more time protecting yourself. You can't afford to be hyper-sensitive, put it that way. You have to find different ways to help you to be stronger every day. And be stronger and wiser. You need strength and you need wisdom. And you've helped so much ... just the fact that you are there. And I know that you are there. And that I know you are an honest person working towards the same end, that's great.
MM: Thank you, you honor me.
KD: And don't be embarrassed by tears ...
MM: I gathered my things, thanked Ms. Dunham again, and gave her a big hug.
Miss Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago on 22 June, 1909 and left this Earth Realm and Ascended to the heaven Realm on May 21, 2006. She Is Re-membered with Love!
(c) Melony McGant, 2002, Photo May 1, 2006 by Tyrone Rasheed
Written by Melony McGant
Workforce Professional/Compassionate Communications Specialist and US Navy Veteran
Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, forged a unique career as a dancer and anthropologist.
Ruby Streate slips off her Converse low-tops and socks. Footless black tights are pulled over her heels; her toes are bare.
“Let’s start with our breathing,” she says, as Miles Davis plays softly. “Inhale one—two—three—four.”
Streate has taught classes in Dunham Technique for more than 40 years. She began studying with Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, in 1969, when “I was just a violent teenager.”
At 17—very late by dance standards—Streate took her first class at Dunham’s now-defunct Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. (East St. Louis, about 300 miles southwest of Chicago, is directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, its larger, more prosperous neighbor.) Just two months after that first class, Streate was asked to join the PATC’s performing company. “This is how good I was,” she says matter-of-factly. “A natural.”
At the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis, Illinois, Ruby Streate and her senior students strut along to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)
There are 10 senior citizens in Streate’s class, held Thursday mornings in the gym at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center. They include Mary Cannon, a retired local TV presenter (“I was the first black on CBS St. Louis in 1963.”) and Lula Williams, who’s 90. Joyner-Kersee, who grew up in East St. Louis and went on to win six Olympic medals, takes the class when she’s in town.
After heel lifts and pliés, done with feet parallel, “Let’s go to isolations,” Streate says, adding, “One of the first techniques Miss D developed.”
Streate and her students practice head isolations: turning the head to the right, center, left, and back to center, while the body remains still. Then shoulder isolations. Then hip isolations. For any student of jazz dance, the movements are intimately familiar. But Dunham’s role in developing the technique has been forgotten.
At the end of class, the students perform a routine to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Dunham played temptress Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, the 1940 Broadway musical that made her famous. Today the song, a jazz standard, is probably best known as the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme.
Streate calls out the choreography. “Back it up. Walk that dog,” she says. “Work it out now. Strut it out. Pick your cherries. Oh!”
In her unlikely dual career, Katherine Dunham managed to do pioneering work in both dance and anthropology.
During the 1930s, as an anthropology major in the College, Dunham traveled alone to the Caribbean to research dance traditions that slaves had brought from Africa. She adapted what she learned into choreography for her company—the nation’s first self-supporting black dance troupe, which performed in the United States and 57 other countries. At a time when black culture was widely devalued, Dunham pointed to a rich cultural tradition that had not been crushed out by slavery.
Dunham in the 1920s. (Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis)
As she traveled with her company from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, Dunham continued to study the dance forms of other cultures. She integrated these disparate traditions into both her dance technique and her choreography.
“Had she been only scholastic in ability, she would simply have become an exponent of West Indian folklore,” a writer for the Observer (London) noted in 1948. “Had she only been after fame and money” she could have opted for Broadway and Hollywood. “But Katherine Dunham is a young woman of great independence, and she chose her own course.”
Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909. Her father was African American; her mother, who died when Katherine was three, French Canadian and Native American. After her father remarried, the family moved to Joliet, Illinois, where he ran a dry cleaning business.
Dunham had little formal dance training. During high school she joined the Terpsichorean Club where she learned modern dance, an art form still in its early years. Dunham didn’t take her first ballet lesson until she was 19.
Portraits of Dunham by Carl Van Vechten, PhB 1903. (Van Vechten Trust)
In 1929 she joined her older brother Albert Dunham, PhB’28, AM’31, PhD’33, at the University of Chicago, where he was studying philosophy. By 1930 she had formed the short-lived Ballet Nègre, one of the first African American ballet companies in the United States. She was just 21.
Early in her academic career Dunham attended a lecture by anthropologist Robert Redfield, LAB 1915, PhB’20, JD’21, PhD’28, whose research in Mexico focused on acculturation. Redfield suggested that black Americans had preserved African traditions in popular dances such as the lindy and the cakewalk. Dunham was struck by an intriguing possibility: what if African traditions in the New World were even better preserved in the dances of Afro-Caribbeans? It was an insight that would guide her unique career.
There are countless anecdotes about Katherine Dunham’s triumphs. Here’s one: At her 1934 interview with the Rosenwald Foundation, she wasn’t sure whether to present herself as an anthropologist or a dancer.
Asked about her proposed research, she suddenly decided: “Do you mind if I just show you?” As the astonished committee stared, Dunham slipped off her woolen suit to reveal a leotard and flowing dance skirt; she demonstrated ballet first, then pulsing African dance. The committee voted unanimously to award $2,400 (more than $40,000 in today’s money) to support her fieldwork in the Caribbean. At the recommendation of her mentor Melville Herskovits, PhB’20—a Northwestern University anthropologist and African studies expert—Dunham’s calling cards read both “dancer” and “anthropologist.”
Katherine Dunham in the dance revue Bambouche!, at New York’s 54th Street Theater, ca. 1955. (New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress)
Here’s another one. In Haiti, the respectable citizens disapproved of her interest in the rituals of vodun (also spelled vaudou, voodoo, and several other ways). So Dunham hired the largest theater in Port-au-Prince and announced a concert. Dressed in white tulle, she gave a flawless ballet performance, accompanied by the music of Debussy. “They loved it,” Dunham recalled, “and I was given a free hand thereafter to search out my ‘primitives.’”
In Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti—she fell in love with Haiti—Dunham “would rent a native hut … and patiently await an occasion to dance,” she recalled. “For a long time I was merely a happy participant in every dance I could manage to get to … . Then my academic training got the better of me.”
As a researcher in the Caribbean, Dunham had two striking advantages: she was of African heritage, and she picked up dances easily. To explain her interest, sometimes she just said she liked to dance, which made sense “to a people for whom dancing was an integral, vital expression of daily living,” she wrote in her book Dances of Haiti (Center for Afro-American Studies, 1983). Other times she expressed “the intention of some ancestral ritual obligation.” As anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in the foreword to the French edition of Dances of Haiti, Dunham portrayed herself as “a stray soul who had to be brought back into the fold of the traditional cult.”
(Van Vechten Trust)
It was not entirely a lie. Dunham claimed she was on the “border of belief and disbelief” about vodun, which appealed to her as a danced religion. When Dunham decided to go through the ceremony of lavé-tête (literally, washed head), she did it partly for her research and partly for herself. She hoped to get divine assistance for her brother, who had become mentally ill, and to help her future career.
During the three-day ceremony, her hair was matted with cornmeal, feathers, syrup, chicken, blood, herbs, and raw eggs, then wrapped in cloth. She had to wear the headwrap for a week afterward.
Herskovits was dismayed. He wrote to Dunham asking her to just observe, not participate in, vodun rituals; he worried about malaria and burns. Dunham ignored him.
When she returned to the United States in 1936 she brought drums of all sizes, as well as enough traditional clothing to dress her dance company for years.
And she continued to follow vodun practices. In her Bronzeville apartment Dunham kept an altar to Damballa, the serpent god whom she had married during the ceremony in Haiti.
Katherine Dunham in Tropical Revue at New York's Century Theatre, 1945. (Photography by Alfredo Valenti, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress)
Dunham was awarded a PhB in 1936, becoming one of the first African Americans to earn a degree in anthropology. Her UChicago master’s thesis, “The Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form, and Function,” was accepted but she never completed her course work; dancing demanded too much of her time. (Her thesis was first published as “Las danzas de Haiti,” in Spanish and English, in 1947; a French translation and revised English editions followed.)
Unsure which career to choose, she consulted Redfield, who suggested, “Why not pursue both?” During the decades she toured with her company, Dunham continued to research other cultures, publish books, and give lectures. Still, she felt guilty that a dance career wasn’t a dignified occupation for a research anthropologist. Sometimes she said she wished she could repay the Rosenwald Foundation.
From a contemporary perspective, Dunham’s research-to-performance method can be seen as “a radical reimagining of what anthropology might be,” writes Elizabeth Chin, editor of Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures (School for Advanced Research Press, 2014). The fact that she pursued “performative anthropology,” rather than a traditional academic career, perhaps also explains why her contributions have gone “unacknowledged for so long,” Chin writes.
In 1938, supported by the Works Progress Administration, Dunham choreographed her first full-length ballet, L’Ag’ya, based on a Martinique fighting dance. Dunham danced the role of Loulouse, whom the villain tries to lure with a powerful love charm he obtained from the king of the zombies.
The assigned costume designer was John Pratt, PhB’33. He suggested a different ending for the ballet; the two argued. “It was rare for anyone to correct or criticize me in any of my creative work,” Dunham wrote in an unpublished memoir, “and unheard of that I would listen and consent to change.” But this time she did.
Vanoye Aikens and Katherine Dunham in L’Ag’Ya, which premiered in 1938. (Library of Congress)
Dunham and Pratt were married in 1941 and later adopted a French daughter, Marie-Christine. For the rest of Dunham’s career, Pratt designed her company’s costumes and sets.
After the WPA Federal Theatre Project closed, Dunham wanted to keep the company of dancers together. So she booked the group into the Sherman Hotel’s Panther Room on a bill with Duke Ellington and Raymond Scott.
Pratt and Dunham, undated. (Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)
The show included American dances performed in shoes, as well as Rara Tonga and Bolero, danced barefoot. The owner feared that his customers would be offended, so Dunham made a concession: on their feet the dancers wore ribbons meant to look like sandal straps.
The nightclub appearance was a crucial decision in keeping her dance company solvent. To survive, scholar Susan Manning wrote, “Dunham had to improvise patronage at the interstices of leftist culture, elite black culture, commercial and noncommercial theater, and an emergent American ballet and modern dance.”
Soon after the Panther Room show, choreographer George Balanchine, who later founded the New York City Ballet, invited Dunham to appear in the Broadway show Cabin in the Sky. Blues singer Ethel Waters played Petunia, the loyal wife of gambler Little Joe; Dunham was cast as his love interest, Georgia Brown. The serious anthropology student was now a Broadway star.
Dunham in a 1949 publicity still. (Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis)
But there’s an even more unlikely aspect to Dunham’s unlikely success. Since high school, she had suffered crippling arthritis in her knees. In New York she lived in a sixth-floor walk up; when she climbed the stairs she was forced to rest on the second and fourth floors.
One doctor, who treated her knees with excruciating injections of bee venom, told her if she didn’t give up dancing, she wouldn’t be able to walk in two years. Dunham ignored him as she had ignored Herskovits.
Partly to strengthen her knees, she began to develop her own dancing style, Dunham Technique. A synthesis of African and balletic movement, the technique required relaxed knees and a flexible back. It also emphasized isolations, adapted from African dance. Dunham continued to refine her technique over the decades, absorbing dance traditions from the countries where her company traveled.
“Dunham Technique makes very strong bodies,” recalled Glory Van Scott, who danced with the Dunham Company in the late 1950s. “There are a lot of things that Dunham dancers can do technically that other dancers cannot do. … It’s a very alive technique, very difficult, but a very natural and a very beautiful technique.”
Anybody remember isolations?”
At 3 p.m. Ruby Streate is teaching at Estelle Sauget School of Choice in Cahokia, Illinois, about five miles from East St. Louis. The students wear their school uniforms with bare feet.
With children, Streate’s strictness—modeled after Dunham’s—comes through. “Excuse me,” she says sharply to a blond boy who is slumping; he immediately straightens.
“Cover your mouth, brother, when you yawn,” she says to another child. “I thought a tiger was about to attack me.”
The blond boy, it turns out, does excellent head isolations, snapping his head with machine-like precision.
Streate tries to teach the children the sashay, a step they’ll need for one of Dunham’s square dances. (Dunham’s dance revues typically included an “Americana” section, featuring folk dances from the South.) Streate steps on the ball of one foot, then brings her heel down: next she lifts the other foot and slaps it flat against the floor. There are just three parts to the step—ball, heel, slap—but it’s tricky.
Now Streate does the step up to tempo, with a graceful hip swing added. It’s true: she is a natural. Nonetheless, she tells the class, “If you pay attention, your body can do the same thing.”
The director of the after-school program, Brenda Mitchell, peeks in. She took dance classes from Streate as a child, she whispers; so did her daughters, now grown. Streate looks over and glares.
Half a mile down the road, at Penniman Elementary, she teaches a 4 p.m. class with 23 students, all African American.
“You sound like a bunch of old biddies in here,” she chides when they groan during the stretches. “My grandmother could lift her leg up higher.”
They practice balancing on one leg. “A flamingo,” she says, bringing a girl in bright pink pants to the front to demonstrate. “That comes from being focused.”
Later the students practice jumping straight up in the air. Streate brings the pink-pants girl to the front again. Her jumps are so high, they don’t seem physically possible. She’s on an invisible, personal trampoline.
Up she goes again. Up. And up. And up.
Cabin in the Sky, which opened on Broadway in 1940 and then toured the country, marked the beginning of Dunham’s meteoric rise. She was amused by the publicity: “I find myself referred to, and on the very same day, both as ‘the hottest thing on Broadway’ and ‘an intelligent, sensitive young woman … an anthropologist of note,’” she wrote in her autobiographical essay “Thesis Turned Broadway.”
It was a theme that continued in headlines throughout her career, scholar Constance Valis Hill has pointed out: “‘Schoolmarm Turned Siren,’ ‘Torridity to Anthropology,’ ‘Cool Scientist or Sultry Performer?’ and ‘High Priestess of Jive.’”
Dunham and her dancers appeared in Hollywood films, most famously Stormy Weather (1943). They performed on television, the first hourlong dance program on CBS. “I had never seen television but was thrilled at the idea of being another ‘first,’” Dunham wrote in an unpublished memoir.
Dunham, center, in a still from the 1943 movie Stormy Weather. (Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)
The company—35 to 50 dancers and musicians—toured incessantly. Dunham’s “shrewd mix of show business, art, and anthropology,” as one critic described it, made this financially possible. The sensuousness of certain pieces—especially those performed in nightclubs—helped. “What I did onstage was considered daring,” Dunham once said. “Being on stage was, for me, making love. It was an expression of my love of humanity and things of beauty.”
A New York Times reviewer noted that a 1940 performance, which included folk dances from Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, Martinique, and the United States, was “tremendously anthropological and ‘important,’” but also “debonair and delightful, not to say daring and erotic.” The review ended with a postscript: “Better not take grandma.”
“Miss Dunham’s success has been acclaimed on all sides, from the Daily Express to the highbrows of classical dance,” an Observer reviewer wrote in 1948, noting that the “diverse and brilliant show” was “entirely the production of one person. ... [Dunham] must be something of a genius.” During the same trip to London, she gave a lecture on cults at the Royal Anthropological Society.
Katherine Dunham’s anthropological field work in the Caribbean deeply influenced her choreography. (Library of Congress)
Despite the reviews, Dunham and her company still had to deal with the logistical difficulties that came with racial discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere. Hotel accommodations could be difficult to find. Dunham often relied on Pratt, who was white, to make reservations.
The group sometimes performed in segregated theaters or nightclubs. As a teenager, choreographer Alvin Ailey sneaked in the back of Ciro’s in Los Angeles to see the Dunham Company: “There she was, gorgeous and glittering in gold bangles, doing black culture … where we, as blacks, couldn’t even enter.” At segregated venues, Dunham always staged some kind of protest, even if it meant just one African American was seated in the whites-only section.
Katherine Dunham in “Floyd’s Guitar Blues,” 1952. (Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)
In 1951 Dunham created a controversial ballet called Southland, which dramatized a lynching onstage. Commissioned by the Symphony of Chile, the ballet premiered in Santiago; it was so graphic, some of the audience wept. When the company performed Southland in Paris in 1953, a Le Monde reviewer wrote, “Katherine Dunham had changed since those wonderful evenings in Paris. … What has happened to the anthropologist we once admired?”
Hurt by the criticism of both performances—and by pressure from US diplomats concerned about anti-Americanism during the Cold War—Dunham never performed Southland again. In the 1950s the State Department began sending artists abroad as cultural ambassadors, but Dunham’s company was never chosen. When it was invited to perform in China, the US embassy refused to issue visas.
Dunham in an undated publicity still. (Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)
By 1965, after touring with her company for more than 25 years with no government support or other arts funding, Dunham was exhausted. The company’s final performance was at the Apollo, the famed vaudeville house in Harlem.
Dunham’s brother-in-law Davis Pratt, who taught at Southern Illinois University, arranged for her to become an artist in residence. Dunham was a visiting artist first at SIU–Carbondale, then at its northern branch in East St. Louis.
Dunham (center) with percussionist Mor Thiamand and his wife, Kiné, in 1972. (Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis)
Dunham planned to stay a semester. But once there, “I was so moved by the terrible situation of East Saint Louis, the hopelessness, apathy, and utter despair that had been intensified by the riots, that I remained,” she said in 1976. “As an anthropologist and a humanist I felt that I could give something.”
With SIU’s support, Dunham established the Performing Arts Training Center, hoping that art could serve “as a rational alternative to violence and genocide.” The PATC offered classes taught by former Dunham dancers; students and teachers performed together in a semiprofessional traveling company. Dunham also established a museum to house the instruments, artwork, and artifacts she’d collected around the world.
The PATC, as Dunham described it, was “a unique effort to motivate and stimulate the unchallenged young people of the East Saint Louis area through the arts.”
One of those “unchallenged young people” was Ruby Streate.
She spoke so soft,” says Streate. “She spoke very, very soft. And she was always asking about being peaceful. Which was very strange in East St. Louis, a city that’s known for violence. She always talked about peace and love.”
Streate sits on the wooden stage in the backyard of Dunham’s museum, housed in a Renaissance revival mansion in the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic District—one of the few remains of the city’s happier past. Occasionally a freight train’s screech drowns her out; the track runs behind the yard.
“Miss Dunham would ask me, ‘Ruby, are you still mean?’ ‘No ma’am, I’m not mean anymore.’ ‘Ruby, I remember when you threw a desk at somebody. I remember when you threw a chair.’ But she never asked me that in front of my kids,” she says.
“She was just a beautiful person. Everybody alive should know somebody like Katherine Dunham. She was inspirational.”
Dunham (right) with a visitor to the Katherine Dunham Museum, ca. 1970. (Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis)
Dunham died in 2006 at age 96. Today her museum, open by appointment only, is in difficult financial straits, says executive director Leverne Backstrom. Paying for utilities is a month-to-month struggle. “We can’t lose this museum,” says Backstrom. “It’s part of Miss Dunham’s legacy.”
An annual Dunham Technique seminar is held in the museum’s carriage house, which was converted to a dance studio in the early 1980s. The studio is also home to the Katherine Dunham Museum Children’s Workshop; Streate, the artistic dance director, teaches three days a week. She’s paid, says Backstrom, “when parents can afford to pay tuition.”
“She said she came to East St. Louis because it reminded her of Haiti,” Streate says. “The love that she experienced from people, the importance of family.”
Streate rattles off the names of young dancers who she is sure will keep Dunham’s work alive. “Like Nia. I can’t wait for you to meet little Nia. She’s just turned six. I know she’s superstar bound, because that’s her attitude,” she says.
After warming up, Streate’s students at Penniman Elementary learned a routine performed to the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)
“Like Heather,” who also took classes with Streate beginning at age six. “She’s 33 now. She graduated from Columbia College. She comes over and teaches jazz dance or ballet or hip-hop, whichever one the kids beg her to do.”
Streate says she would love to reconstruct the duet “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” with Heather in Dunham’s role, now that she’s “a grown woman.” Streate has a strong memory for choreography, but much of Dunham’s oeuvre is not appropriate for kids.
A car pulls into the lot. The students in her Children’s Workshop—who range in age from six to 16—are beginning to arrive.
“We can go inside now,” Streate says.
It’s time to teach another class.
Dunham turned anthropology into artistry
Field work in Caribbean inspired pioneering dance career of Katherine Dunham, PhB'36
By Carrie Golus, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Roger Woods, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections
Editor’s note: This story is adapted from Winter 2016 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.
As an undergraduate, Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, once attended a lecture by Prof. Robert Redfield, whose anthropological research in Mexico focused on acculturation.
Redfield suggested that black Americans had preserved African traditions in popular dances such as the lindy and the cakewalk. Dunham was struck by an intriguing possibility: What if African traditions in the New World were even better preserved in the dances of Afro-Caribbeans?
“ For a long time I was merely a happy participant in every dance I could manage to get to…Then my academic training got the better of me.”
It was an insight that would guide her unique career.
During the 1930s, while an undergrad, Dunham traveled alone to the Caribbean to research dance traditions that slaves had brought from Africa. She adapted what she learned into choreography for her company—the nation’s first self-supporting black dance troupe, which performed in the United States and 57 other countries. At a time when black culture was widely devalued, Dunham pointed to a rich cultural tradition that had not been crushed out by slavery.
“Had she been only scholastic in ability, she would simply have become an exponent of West Indian folklore,” a writer from the London Observer noted in 1948. “Had she only been after fame and money,” she could have opted for Broadway and Hollywood, “but Katherine Dunham is a young woman of great independence, and she chose her own course.”
Combining dance and anthropology
There are countless anecdotes about Katherine Dunham’s triumphs. At her 1934 interview with the Rosenwald Foundation, she wasn’t sure whether to present herself as an anthropologist or a dancer.
Asked about her proposed research, she suddenly decided: “Do you mind if I just show you?” As the astonished committee stared, Dunham slipped off her woolen suit to reveal a leotard and flowing dance skirt. She demonstrated ballet first, then pulsing African dance.
The committee voted unanimously to award $2,400 (more than $40,000 in today’s money) to support her fieldwork in the Caribbean. At the recommendation of her mentor Melville Herskovits, PhB’20—a Northwestern University anthropologist and African studies expert—Dunham’s calling cards read both “dancer” and “anthropologist.”
In Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti, Dunham “would rent a native hut…and patiently await an occasion to dance,” she recalled. “For a long time I was merely a happy participant in every dance I could manage to get to…Then my academic training got the better of me.”
Dunham was awarded a PhB in 1936, becoming one of the first African Americans to earn a degree in anthropology. Her UChicago master’s thesis, “The Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form, and Function,” was accepted but she never completed her course work. Dancing demanded too much of her time. (Her thesis was first published as “Las danzas de Haiti,” in Spanish and English, in 1947. A French translation, with a forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and revised English editions followed.)
Unsure which career to choose, she consulted Redfield, who suggested, “Why not pursue both?” During the decades she toured with her company, Dunham continued to publish books and give lectures. Still, she felt guilty that a dance career wasn’t a dignified occupation for a research anthropologist.
Dunham was amused by the critics’ response to her unusual background. “I find myself referred to, and on the very same day, both as ‘the hottest thing on Broadway’ and ‘an intelligent, sensitive young woman … an anthropologist of note,’” she wrote in her autobiographical essay “Thesis Turned Broadway.” It was a theme that continued in headlines throughout her career, scholar Constance Valis Hill has pointed out: “‘Schoolmarm Turned Siren,’ ‘Torridity to Anthropology,’ ‘Cool Scientist or Sultry Performer?’ and ‘High Priestess of Jive.’”
Dunham and her dancers appeared in Hollywood films, most famously Stormy Weather (1943). They performed on television, the first hourlong dance program on CBS. And the company—35 to 50 dancers and musicians—toured incessantly from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, performing in both theaters and nightclubs. The company’s final performance was at the Apollo, the famed vaudeville house in Harlem.
Dunham’s “shrewd mix of show business, art, and anthropology,” as one critic described it, made this financially possible. The sensuousness of certain pieces—especially those performed in nightclubs—helped. “What I did onstage was considered daring,” Dunham once said. “Being on stage was, for me, making love. It was an expression of my love of humanity and things of beauty.”
As she traveled the world, Dunham continued to study the dance forms of other cultures. She integrated these disparate traditions into her own dance technique, Dunham Technique, as well as her choreography.
From a contemporary perspective, Dunham’s research-to-performance method can be seen as “a radical reimagining of what anthropology might be,” writes Elizabeth Chin, editor of Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures (School for Advanced Research Press, 2014).
The fact that she pursued “performative anthropology,” Chin writes, rather than a traditional academic career, perhaps also explains why her contributions have been unacknowledged for far too long.
Originally published on February 29, 2016.
Katherine Dunham was one of the first African Americans awarded a degree in anthropology, earning a PhB from UChicago in 1936. (Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections)
A lecture by Prof. Robert Redfield inspired Katherine Dunham to research the dance traditions of Afro-Caribbeans. When she contemplated careers in either dance or anthropology, Redfield asked, “Why not pursue both?” (Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center)
Beginning with her 1938 breakout Broadway performance in Cabin in the Sky, Katherine Dunham went on to an illustrious dance career in theater and film. She also directed her own dance company for many years. (Pictured in the 1948 film Casbah.) (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)
Katherine Dunham studied the dance forms of other cultures and intregrated those traditions into her dance technique and choreography. (Photo by Roger Woods, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections)
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
The Katherine Dunham Children's Workshop in East St. Louis. A portrait of Katherine Dunham looks over the dance studio as students practice during the Katherine Dunham Children's Workshop in East St. Louis. In the background is a painting of former workshop member and certified Dunham technique teacher Heather Himes. The workshop continues through August and is still accepting new students. The workshop features daily dance classes including Dunham technique, ballet, Kuchipudi, jazz, hip hop, and Bollywood styles. The students also work on self confidence, visual arts, acrobatics, take field trips and perform at area events. Several of the workshop students are preparing for a trip to the University of Chicago to perform and attend workshops on Katherine Dunham's birthday, June 22. Visit kdcah.org to find more information on the children's workshop.
Derik Holtmann firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more here: http://www.bnd.com/news/local/article86298382.html#storylink=cpy
Wednesday, June 29, 2016 • Volume 134 • Issue 26 Local Since 1882
(Left-to-right) Laurie Gouy, Ruby Streate, 7-year-old Nia Harris, Sadira Muhammad and Brenda Moore attend the birthday celebration of internationally known dancer, Katherine Dunham, Wednesday, June 22 at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 6th Street, Chicago, IL. http://hpherald.com/ Dunham graduated from University of Chicago in 1936.
-Owen Lawson III
By SONIA SCHLESINGER
Dance students, instructors, anthropologists and disciples of the late Katherine Dunham gathered at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., on Wednesday, June 24, 2016 to celebrate her 107th birthday.
A University of Chicago alum (class of 1936), Dunham studied anthropology as an undergraduate. She traveled to Haiti in the 1930s, where she researched the Caribbean dance techniques that would ultimately influence her own. She went on to create the Dunham Dance Company, and later to establish the Katherine Dunham Museum and Children’s Workshop in East St. Louis, IL.
The event, organized by the Logan Center’s Community Arts Engagement Program Coordinator, Dominique Boyd, brought Chicago’s Dunham aficionados and members of East St. Louis dance ensemble to celebrate. It included a “Happy Birthday Katherine Dunham Cake,” a slideshow of Dunham quotes and photo, and a display of artifacts she brought back from Haiti and her later travels.
Boyd explained that this celebration, inspired by a Winter 2016 University of Chicago Magazine article about Dunham, is essential to the commemoration of Dunham’s work in multiple cities.
“We hope that it will be the beginning of connections made between people in Chicago and East St Louis,” she said.
Partway through the celebration, members of the dance ensemble, their mothers, who referred to themselves as “Dance Moms” and other guests introduced themselves. Many remarked upon the opportunities Dunham dance has given them and on the importance of remembering her life and legacy.
“She was a shaker; she made you wake up and recognize things, and Dunham became a way of life,” said “Mama” Geri Williams who teaches Dunham Technique at ETA Creative Arts on 7558 S. Chicago Ave. “It’s how you approach things; it helps people to become aware of themselves, open up, and appreciate other people and cultures.”
Williams explained that the Dunham technique includes three stages: bodywork, progression and conditioning. Dunham had arthritis in her knees since high school, and her development of the technique, a synthesis of African dance and ballet movements, allowed her to dance anyway.
“The technique is about finding your center,” Williams said. “This is your foundation and from there you can branch out and do all kinds of dance.”
The event was also attended by Ruby Streate, who danced with the Dunham Company and now teaches Dunham Technique in East St. Louis.
She explained that she has taken it upon herself to help the world remember her friend and mentor.
“My responsibility is to make sure Dunham’s legacy is preserved. Ms. Dunham could’ve left her legacy anywhere but she decided to make it in East St. Louis,” she said.
Her Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop, which works with children ages 4-18, performed earlier in the day at the Harold Washington Library downtown Chicago. Jawaun Smoot, a member of the workshop, said he is grateful for what he has learned from Katherine Dunham dance. “It has taught me a lot,” he said, “determination, the understanding that you can never give up, that you are stronger than what you think, and that the only way is up.”
Following the celebration, Ms. Streate taught a Dunham Technique Master Class at the University’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry next to the Logan Center.
Of the celebration and class, she said, “This is just the beginning, just a seed planted to remember her legacy, that of us being whole people, communities, not fragmenting dance, making sure we…know who we are.”
Published in IamEstL Magazine July/August 2016 Edition
Published in IamEstL Magazine September/October 2016 Edition