Born: June 22, 1909
Died: May 21, 2006
Occupation: choreographer, dancer
Born in Chicago, and raised in Joliet, Illinois, Katherine Dunham did not begin formal dance training until her late teens. In Chicago she studied with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill, and danced her first leading role in Ruth Page's ballet "La Guiablesse" in 1933. She attended the University of Chicago on scholarship (B.A., Social Anthropology, 1936), where she was inspired by the work of anthropologists Robert Redfield and Melville Herskovits, who stressed the importance of the survival of African culture and ritual in understanding African-American culture. While in college she taught youngsters' dance classes and gave recitals in a Chicago storefront, calling her student company, founded in 1931, "Ballet Negre." Awarded a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship in 1936 for her combined expertise in dance and anthropology, she departed after graduation for the West Indies (Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, Martinique) to do field research in anthropology and dance. Combining her two interests, she linked the function and form of Caribbean dance and ritual to their African progenitors.
The West Indian experience changed forever the focus of Dunham's life (eventually she would live in Haiti half of the time and become a priestess in the "vodoun" religion), and caused a profound shift in her career. This initial fieldwork provided the nucleus for future researches and began a lifelong involvement with the people and dance of Haiti. From this Dunham generated her master's thesis (Northwestern University, 1947) and more fieldwork. She lectured widely, published numerous articles, and wrote three books about her observations: JOURNEY TO ACCOMPONG (1946), THE DANCES OF HAITI (her master's thesis, published in 1947), and ISLAND POSSESSED (1969), underscoring how African religions and rituals adapted to the New World.
And, importantly for the development of modern dance, her fieldwork began her investigations into a vocabulary of movement that would form the core of the Katherine Dunham Technique. What Dunham gave modern dance was a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement -- a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving -- which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance.
When she returned to Chicago in late 1937, Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group, a company of black artists dedicated to presenting aspects of African-American and African-Caribbean dance. Immediately she began incorporating the dances she had learned into her choreography. Invited in 1937 to be part of a notable New York City concert, "Negro Dance Evening," she premiered "Haitian Suite," excerpted from choreography she was developing for the longer "L'Ag'Ya." In 1937-1938 as dance director of the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, she made dances for "Emperor Jones" and "Run Lil' Chillun," and presented her first version of "L'Ag'Ya" on January 27, 1938. Based on a Martinique folktale (ag'ya is a Martinique fighting dance), "L'Ag'Ya" is a seminal work, displaying Dunham's blend of exciting dance-drama and authentic African-Caribbean material.
Dunham moved her company to New York City in 1939, where she became dance director of the New York Labor Stage, choreographing the labor-union musical "Pins and Needles." Simultaneously she was preparing a new production, "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem." It opened February 18, 1939, in what was intended to be a single weekend's concert at the Windsor Theatre in New York City. Its instantaneous success, however, extended the run for ten consecutive weekends and catapulted Dunham into the limelight. In 1940 Dunham and her company appeared in the black Broadway musical, "Cabin in the Sky," staged by George Balanchine, in which Dunham played the sultry siren Georgia Brown -- a character related to…