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Monday, May 22, 2006

Katherine Dunham: A Pair of Legendary Shoes

Katherine Mary Dunham (22 June 1909 - 21 May 2006) was a dancer, choreographer, songwriter who was trained as an anthropologist. Dunham was an innovator in African-American modern dance, and a leader in the field of Dance Anthropology.

Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She studied both dance and anthropology while an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Chicago during the 1930s. She showed great promise in her ethnographic studies of dance and studied under the great anthropologists of the day, Robert Redfield, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir, and Bronislaw Malinowski. In 1936, she was awarded a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship to conduct ethnographic study of the Vodun in the West Indies, a path also followed by fellow anthropology student, Zora Neale Hurston .

While working on her masters, she was told by her advisors that she had to choose between anthropology and dance. Much to their regret, she chose dance, left her graduate studies before finishing her doctorate, and departed for Hollywood, where she made a number of films before forming her own company.

Dunham married producer John Thomas Pratt, who managed her career. She also began the Katherine Dunham Company, a troupe of dancers, singers, actors and musicians, which was the first African American modern dance company. The company toured worldwide and in the then segregated South, where Ms. Dunham once refused to hold a show after finding out that the city’s black residents had not been allowed to buy tickets for the performance.

Dunham later directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York City and was an artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University. Dunham was also known for her anthropological work in studies into Haitian and Caribbean culture. In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis, Illinois as an attempt to use the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest. The PATC drew on former members of Dunham's touring company as well as local residents for its teaching staff.

Known for her many innovations, the Dunham Technique is now taught as a modern dance style in dance schools, including at the Harkness Dance Center of the 92nd Street Y.

Katherine Dunham passed away in her sleep in New York City on 21 May 2006.

What I do is kick them in the pants with a diamond buckled shoe!
~~Aileen Mehle~~

4 Broken Heels:

Renegade Eye said...

Great post about a great person.

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laniza said...

Thank you for this synopsis, Tinker. She was an amazing woman.

Joann said...


Tinker said...

you are welcone Joanne and laniza!!

Thanks for stopping by renegade eye