Katherine Dunham (1909 -2006), a leading dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and activist, produced a style and a voice that traveled the world for several decades. She was the founder of the Dunham dance company and the Dunham techniques.
Inherently focused on African and Caribbean dance, she sought to infuse and explore a culture of black dance and ballet, challenging the perception that dance was natural to black people. Her style of using primitive dance forms and introducing her techniques as a form of high culture led her to be labeled as the “matriarch and queen mother of black dance”.
Author Joanna Dee Das states ‘trying to communicate her multifaceted legacy thus presents a challenge, as contemporary parallels never quite align’. After all, Dunham began her career as a woman in the early twentieth century that was faced with the constant obstacles of racism and sexism during the times of the New Negro Movement, The Black Power Movement, and beyond.
This is an academic text rather than a biography. It critically inspects Dunham’s role as an anthropologist and activist who used dance as a tool of liberation. As a self-proclaimed expert in African dance, the author criticizes Dunham for having spent very little time on the continent. In its analysis, the author shows Dunham’s character as a complex and conflicted activist as she struggled with her celebrity status, her own voice, and the commitments to her dance company.
Developing her anthropological studies in the Caribbean, she was able to learn and engage in African traditions, dances, and rituals that were an important presence in West Indian heritage. Dunham lived outside the United States exclusively for 20 years, and the book focuses on the traveling of her dance company across the Caribbean, South America, Europe, and Africa.
Dunham’s activism was both subtle and overt. She clearly had an intellectual way of understanding when and when not to rock the boat. Her outlook on the politics across the black diaspora as well as race and representation were inspired through her dance by the various cultures and political climates of each country.
Dunham identified Haiti as her spiritual home. As the ambassador of Haiti, she sought to represent Haiti as the true heart of the African diaspora. Here she learned about the Vodun rituals and dance movements that are heavily identified through her work. Her attempts to promote Haiti were not always recognized by the locals, but I felt she was always championing for those idealistic notions she held about the global African diaspora.
This book reminded me of the power of communities and how one person can change the perception of the community both for those within and for outsiders. Her work setting up dance schools in New York and St. Louis gave purpose to the young and poor and helped to shape a number of people for a lifetime.
Watching her videos on YouTube, it’s clear her dance style was contemporary dance before it even had a name. The relevancy of her ballet performance of Southland, which dramatized the lynching of a black man, has been highlighted in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Her legacy of invoking the power of dance and education is still remembered. The schools, culture centers, and museums she set up (often at the burden of her own finances) highlighted her advocacy for creating a system that reflected the students and the communities with which she worked in. Dunham is a worthy name in Black History not only in the United States, but as a global role model.
Author: Joanna Dee Das
To be released: June 2017
Disclaimer: I received an advanced reader copy from the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Catrina is from London and works abroad as a high school teacher, teaching film and design in Spain in a pursuit to improve her bad Spanish. She’s a serial traveler and has lived in Hong Kong and El Salvador (yes, murder central!). She binge watches TV shows, takes photographs, and occasionally blogs about her traveling adventures.