Katherine Dunham
National Visionary

June 22, 1909 - May 21, 2006
Born in Chicago, Illinois

Choreographer, dancer, writer; Founder of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company

American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham, was best known for her groundbreaking choreography based on African American, Caribbean, West African and South American sources.

As a young dancer and student at the University of Chicago, she became interested in anthropology and eventually pursued studies in both dance and anthropology.

Dunham as a young girl
She received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship in 1935 to study the dance forms of the Caribbean, spending time in Jamaica and Haiti. Ms. Dunham’s fieldwork led to the development of a new sub-discipline of anthropology and also to Ms. Dunham’s own understanding—both intellectual and kinesthetic—of the African roots of black dance in the West Indies.

After her return to the United States, Ms. Dunham went to New York to perform and choreograph her new type of American Black dance, which combined African and Caribbean movements with techniques of ballet and modern dance. Her work was well received, and in 1945 she created the Katherine Dunham School of Dance. She continued to refine her technique and to expand her choreography, transmitting that body of knowledge to generations of dance students.

In 1964 Ms. Dunham became an artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University and then professor and director of the university’s Performing Arts Training Center. She opened the Katharine Dunham Museum in Alton, Illinois, in 1967, and in 1977, she moved it to East St. Louis, where she brings an awareness of Haitian and African art to area residents.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife

Among her original dance works are “L’ag’ya” (1938), “Shango” (1945) and “Bal Negre” (1946). Ms. Dunham has choreographed for musicals, both on and off-Broadway, as well as a New York Metropolitan Opera production of “Aida.” She and her company appeared in George Ballanchine’s staging of “Cabin in the Sky” (1940), and she also did choreography for the film “Stormy Weather” (1943).

Her books, including “Journey to Accompong” (1946), “The Dances of Haiti (her master’s thesis, 1947), and “Island Possessed” (1969), contain her observations on the ways African culture has been adapted in the New World.

Ms. Dunham was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983, and she was named one of the first 100 of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition. She has also received lifetime achievement awards from both the NAACP and the Urban League. Her archives were purchased in 2000 by the Library of Congress to support their Katharine Dunham Legacy Project.

Ms. Dunham passed away on May 21, 2006.


Katherine Dunham's Wikipedia page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/dunhamkatherine