100 Dance Treasures

Katherine Dunham Menu

Katherine Dunham in the ballet L'Ag'Ya, Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Katherine Dunham in the ballet L'Ag'Ya, which premiered in 1938. Based on a fighting dance from Martinique, which she had learned during ethnographic travels, the piece represented her first major artistic breakthrough. (Photograph from the Katherine Dunham Online Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Often considered the grande dame of African American dance, Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She began her formal study of dance in Chicago at age nineteen, where she trained with Mark Turbyfill, Ruth Page, and Ludmilla Speranzeva while also studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. In 1935-1936, with support from the Rosenwald Foundation, she spent ten months investigating the dance cultures of the Caribbean. Based on the rhythms and movements she learned during her research, Dunham developed a groundbreaking new aesthetic and technique that also incorporated elements of ballet and modern dance. Her 1940 show at the Windsor Theatre in New York, Tropics and Le Jazz “Hot”, led to a featured role in the 1940 Broadway hit Cabin in the Sky, for which she also contributed choreography. From the 1940s to the 1960s, her company toured the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Australia, introducing global audiences to her creative interpretation of African diasporic culture. In the meantime, she established a school in New York City, where the dissemination of her Dunham Technique greatly influenced modern and jazz dance, and a permanent residence in Haiti. Always committed to education and activism, she did not rest when the company finished touring in the early 1960s. Instead, she founded the Performing Arts Training Center (affiliated with Southern Illinois University) in East St. Louis and spent much of the next forty years of her life dedicated to the youth of that city.

Learn more in Katherine Dunham, an essay by Joanna Dee Das.

Katherine Dunham, Photo courtesy of New York Public Library at left: Katherine Dunham in "Rara Tonga" from the show Tropical Revue (1943), choreographed by Dunham. During her travels, she learned traditional dances and rituals, which she incorporated into her company’s performances. (Photograph from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)

Katherine Dunham and a student at Southern Illinois University, ca. 1960s, Photo courtesy Library of Congress at right: Katherine Dunham and a student at Southern Illinois University, ca. 1960s. Dunham was committed to teaching and activism throughout her career, and during her time at SIU she became involved in efforts to revitalize nearby East St. Louis, creating the Performing Arts Training Center. (Photograph from the Katherine Dunham Online Collection at the Library of Congress.)

Katherine Dunham, with Archie Savage, in her work Carnival of Rhythm, 1941.
Dunham's choreography drew on her study of Caribbean and African dance, and
she had important artistic collaborations with percussionists who accompanied
her performances and classes.