Katherine Dunham – Matriarch Of Modern Dance: inspired by her time in Jamaica, with a wide range of ideas for new choreography and a new technique which combined principles of ballet and modern dance with an Afro-Caribbean polyrhythmic way of moving

40c3bd71d0bc8f266c1f3b79a597f5beMatriarch of black American dance, in the 1930s Dunham skillfully blended the discipline of cultural anthropology with the medium of dance to create an entirely new form of movement. With a professional troupe she formed in the 1940s, she helped to establish black or African-American dance as an art form, paving the way for other such luminaries as Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones.


Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Illinois to middle-class parents. Following the death of her school principal mother in 1914, hard times hit the Dunhams. Katherine’s father was forced to take a job as a traveling salesman and Katherine and her brother Albert Jr. were forced to live with their cousins who were both actresses involved in Vaudeville. Thus young Katherine was first exposed to elements of the performing arts.

In the late 1920s Katherine moved to Chicago to join her brother in taking classes at the University of Chicago. She began to take dance classes and to perform in local theatres. She joined with choreographer Ruth Page and ballet dancer Mark Turbyfill to open a dance studio called “Ballet Negre.” At school she was greatly influenced by the work of cultural anthropologists and learned to see dance as a cultural symbol. She applied for and received not one but two prestigious Rosenwald Fellowships to study the anthropological roots of African-American dance which took her on her first field trip to the Caribbean. Dunham lived alternately in Haiti and Jamaica for over a year and a half and learned aspects of Haitian vodoun and Jamaican Maroon dance rituals.


While living with the Accompong Maroons, in standard ethnographic practice, Dunham kept a journal and recorded her daily observations and experiences. She had to first win over the trust and confidence of the people and in doing so she collected information on a group about whom much still remains unknown. In the 1946 book she subsequently published of her experiences she noted her impression of the Accompong Maroons as “one of the heroic races of the world”(p. 15). Her reason for being in Accompong was to see and study the Koromantee dances she had read about. She had heard that these original African war dances, closely tied to African religious and social beliefs, were kept alive by the Maroons.

Early on Dunham encountered denials as to the existence of these dances and she began to despair that she would ever see any performed. Then, when she was becoming convinced she was doomed never to witness what she had come to see, she got a glimpse of the dances when she attended the funeral services for a Miss Mattie Cross who Dunham says had “joined her ancestors in that happy land which is a sweet confusion of Scotch-Presbyterian and Gold Coast hereafter” (p. 85). While at the graveside, for the first time, she heard strains of Koromantee songs she had read about sung by men who were drinking rum and digging Miss Mattie’s grave. She became hopeful, but unfortunately for her she soon realized no dancing was going to take place there and so she left to return to Miss Mattie’s house with the other women. Later on, when the men returned to the house, still singing the songs, she got her first taste of the dance, when as they stumbled into the tiny hut they did a few turns of the Koromantee dance, shouting and clapping.


A few weeks later, near the end of her stay, Dunham heard the strains of the goombay drum, an instrument she knew was used in the Koromantee dances and she became instantly intrigued. She followed it into a hollow behind pimento, breadfruit and coconut trees to encounter a circle of dancers lit by kerosene torches. Faces flickered in the smoky light and the dancers faced each other in the middle of the circle. Dunham watched entranced as they performed dance after dance. The first she learned involved an old man playing the part of a myal doctor who was enticing a duppy (evil spirit) played by an old woman into his power. When that dance ended, the mood became livelier and more dancers entered the circle, hopping about, mimicking two cocks in the thick of a fight: “They switched their middles, bobbed their heads, wrinkled their faces and stuck their necks far out crowing a challenge” (p. 134). Then the strains of the Koromantee war songs Dunham recognized from Miss Mattie’s gravedigging were heard and she joined in the dancing with the steps she had seen danced at Miss Mattie’s funeral. Dunham would take this unique experience and use it as inspiration to create an entirely new dance form. The Koromantee dance began with an introductory walking around in a loose circle. Partners then faced each other and began to do a step much like an Irish reel, hands on hips, hopping from one foot to the other, feet turned out at right angles. They came together and separated then they grabbed each other at the waist and ran circles around each other first one way, then the other. That then gave way to what is called ‘bush-fighting’ ­”crouching down and advancing in line to attack an imaginary enemy with many feints, swerves and much pantomime” (p. 135). Finally Dunham found herself face to face with the old woman who had played the duppy in the first dance and they re-enacted a dance connected to a battle between the Maroons and the British. As Dunham describes: “She grabbed me by the
shoulders and shook me violently, then
we were again hopping around each other with knees high in the air, handkerchiefs and skirts flying” (p. 136). This was just the beginning of a long journey ­ one that would continue throughout her prolific
creative life.


In 1936 Dunham returned to Chicago, inspired by her time in Jamaica, with a wide range of ideas for new choreography and a new technique which combined principles of ballet and modern dance with an Afro-Caribbean polyrhythmic way of moving, flexible torso and spine, isolation of the limbs and articulated pelvis. She founded the Negro Dance Troupe, a company of black artists who presented aspects of African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance. She used this new technique, soon labeled the “Dunham Technique” as a participant in New York’s celebrated “Negro Dance Evening,” and as dance director of Chicago’s Federal Theatre Project. In that context she premiered “L’Ag’Ya,” a Martinquian fighting dance that has become a seminal Dunham work. In 1939 she moved her company to New York where she became dance director of the New York Labor Stage choreographing the musical “Pins and Needles.”

In 1940 she produced the ground-breaking “Tropics and Le Jazz Hot ­ From Haiti to Harlem” which established Dunham as one of American’s most talented choreographers. This led to her first Broadway musical, “Cabin in the Sky” ­ a production staged by American Ballet Theatre’s famed master George Balanchine and on which she and Pratt worked on together. All of Dunham’s productions involved lavish costumes, staging and orchestral arrangements often based on Caribbean folk rhythms. Meanwhile, in 1945 she established Dunham’s School of Dance and Theater in New York which became a major training facility for young dancers ­ some alumni include actors Eartha Kitt and Marlon Brando. In 1948 she toured Europe with her own company and appeared in “Caribbean Rhapsody” at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre. It was the first time elements of American modern dance appeared in Europe, and also the first time black dance was seen as an art form on a European stage.

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1951: Claudia McNeil (left) rehearses at the Colony Club in Kingston, under the watchful eye of Miss Dunham.

During the 1960s Dunham toured the world with her own dance troupe and continued to choreograph for stage, television and the movies. Returning to her roots, in the late 1960s Dunham accepted a post as Visiting Artist in the Fine Arts Division at Southern Illinois University. While there she funded a Performing Arts Training Center to offer inner-city youth alternatives to violence.

Dunham was a staunch civil rights activist, staging protests against segregation in public spaces in the US and elsewhere and filing lawsuit after lawsuit accordingly. One of her major triumphs was the successful staging of a suit against a Brazilian hotel which eventually prompted the Brazilian president to apologize and outlaw discrimination in public places. She once refused to sign a lucrative Hollywood studio contract when the producer indicated a desire to replace some of the darker-skinned members of her repertoire.

Over the years Dunham has choreographed over 90 individual pieces, including Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” in 1972 and 5 revues, 4 of which played on Broadway and toured worldwide. Her 1946 revue, “Bal Negre” was her most critically acclaimed work, including “Shango” based on a Haitian Voodoo
ritual. Between 1941 and 1959 Dunham appeared in 9 Hollywood movies and in several foreign films including Carnival of Rhythm (1939), Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942), Stormy Weather (1943) and Mambo (1954). In 1963 she became the Metropolitan Opera’s first black choreographer, staging a production of “Aida.” In 1965-66 she was cultural adviser to the president of Senegal. Dunham has received numerous commendations for her pioneering work.


She opened the Katherine Dunham Museum and Children’s Workshop in 1977 which houses her personal collection of artifacts. In 1980 she was the subject of TV special entitled “Divine Drumbeats: Katherine Dunham and her People.” In 1983, she received the prestigious Kennedy Center honours, been inducted into the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame. In 1987 she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Dance and directed the reconstruction of some of her works by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (all Ailey classes use the Dunham Technique in training). In 1989 she was awarded a star on the St. Louis Hall of Fame of Acting and Entertainment. In addition, Dunham holds 10 honorary
doctorates and numerous distinguished service awards. She has given countless lectures on, and authored books and papers which explore her experiences and ideas about the roots of African-American dance and religions and their adaptations to a new world. Some of her works include: Journey to Accompong (1946), The Dances of Haiti (her Master’s thesis, 1947) and Island Possessed (1969). In later years she often referred to Haiti as her spiritual home. She currently makes her home in New York City.

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