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Katherine Dunham: Conversation with a Legend

Dr. Jose Belizario

By Deardra Shuler

Photo: AFP/File

It isn't often that one can claim to be a legend in one's own time. Dancer/songwriter Katherine Dunham achieved such distinction up unto her passing this year. Born with the soul of a dancer, and though her body succumbed to the aging process, her rhythm of life and graceful spirit continued to pulsate with passion and vigor up until her death at age 96 on May 21, 2006.  Those who forged our history are passing before our eyes, so it is only fitting I document for the readers my conversation with Ms. Katherine Dunham.

Katherine Dunham came into the world in June of 1909, born into the town of Glynn Ellyn, Illinois.  Glynn Ellyn lie outside of Chicago and was a pleasant place for Katherine to grow up with her brother, Albert, her mother who taught school and her father who was a tailor by trade. "My mother for all intents and purposes, could be considered White.  Although, I have never researched her family background, I believe she was of Canadian and Indian extraction. My father was an American. He was about as pure black as you can get," reminisced Dunham at that time.

"I can’t be sure, but I think that in the earlier days, racial differences may have been easier to handle. I just don't know. I think it was startling to some. People were just so unaccustomed to those things. They may not have been very happy about it, but I don't think things took on some of the really unpleasant turns as they have taken on since then."

When she was 3 years old, Katherine's mother died and shortly afterwards Katherine and her brother moved to Chicago where they stayed with relatives.  The children went back and forth between the black and white sides of the family.   When Katherine turned 7, her family moved to Joliet where she attended Beale Elementary School and her father remarried and bought a dry cleaning establishment. "There was a certain color demarcation because I recall a canal dividing the town, it also separated via color. We lived on the side where there were businesses, Whites and some Mexican immigrants. On the other side lived the few Black people in town.  "Our family stayed close together so most of my exposure and association was with family," recollected Dunham.

Ms. Dunham's father was a talented guitarist and bass singer and it was his side of the family that nurtured Dunham's artistry.  She occasionally sang accompaniment to her father, performing in family living rooms and basements. "When I was in Joliet Town High School, I can recall the music teacher asking me to stop singing bass. I guess I was influenced by my father's bass tone," Ms. Dunham joked.
Dunham came from a working class family.  "I seldom had the opportunity to see dance shows, yet I started dancing on my own," Katherine recalls. "I just felt it inside myself. I simply had natural rhythm." There was a teacher who exposed her students to ballet and a free dance style similar to Isadora Duncan's style. Dunham studied free style as well as Russian and Scottish dancing in high school. "I soon came to see the futility of making Russian dance my career," Dunham chuckled.  Though Katherine loved dance it wasn't her only interest. She studied anthropology when she and her brother Albert attended Chicago University. Albert won a Masters degree in Philosophy from Harvard and his Doctorate from Chicago but found that his color prevented him from getting the teaching job he so richly deserved.  Undeterred he went on to found The Cube Theatre. Katherine earned a Bachelors Degree in Anthropology. "Since my brother was older, he knew that due to the color discrimination, the only social life I would be able to have would be one he created. The Cube Theatre offered me that social life and opportunity to perform." For a moment Dunham paused, lost in reverie. "Now, I realize how much my brother truly loved me" she stated.

Performers such as W.C. Handy, Ruth Page, Canady Lee, and Ben Hecht were some of the artists who came to the Cube. It thrived but eventually Albert got married and moved to Washington after experiencing enough racism to cause the university to reluctantly let him go. "I can recall how much Albert resented what happened.  However, he had a family thus had no other recourse but to go to Howard University in Washington where he was offered a teaching position," Katherine remarked.

Her brother gone, Katherine formed the 'Ballet Negre' within The Cube Theatre and in 1931, the 'Ballet Negre' performed a dance called "Negro Rhapsody" to high acclaim. Some of the dancers, who studied under Dunham at that time, were Eartha Kitt and Talley Beatty, who later went on to achieve fame. In 1934, Katherine married Jordis McCoo and by 1935, was ready to combine her interest in dance with anthropology. She traveled to the West Indies where she studied the culture and African Gods.

"By learning all about the people, I could learn the dance. You can't learn about the rhythm, the dance patterns and the music of a people without learning everything there is to know about them," Katherine acknowledged. "I think the big hole in American thinking is the inability to absorb other traditions and truly try to understand the cultures of other people.  Perhaps had we done so, we might have avoided some dark periods in history."  After studying the rhythm, culture, mythology, and raw primitive movements of these cultures, Katherine formulated a free form dance style that would become her trademark, known today, as the "Dunham technique."  Dunham ended her first marriage. She later married set and costume designer John Pratt. In the 1940's, she began touring Canada, Mexico, and the United States. She also toured Japan, Africa, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, and Brazil. In 1938 and 1939, she performed "Cabin in the Sky," at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York and toured with it to Los Angeles. Later she appeared in Warner Brothers, "Carnival of Rhythm," "Star Spangled Rhythm" and "Pardon My Sarong." In San Francisco she appeared with Howard Skinner's Symphony Orchestra. She eventually returned to New York to perform in "Pins and Needles."

Katherine was left heartsick when her brother Albert died in 1949.  That same year, she received the "Chevalier In the Haitian Legion of Honor" which was awarded by Dumarsais Estime, then President of Haiti. Ms. Dunham was also an activist in her own fashion. "I think my father's activism influenced me. He once told us that he was forced to sit up all night guarding our house with a shotgun."

Ms. Dunham who was a world performer, author, and traveler met famed artists and world renowned political leaders such as Paul Robeson, Evita Peron and Moulay Hassan, the King of Morocco.  She established The Katherine Dunham Dance School in New York from 1943-55. It had headquarters in East St. Louis and schools in Haiti, Switzerland, and Italy.  Dunham attended the screening of "Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball" at JP Morgan Library in May in New York City. Katherine's legs were once insured for 250,000 dollars.

What was Dunham's secret to longevity?  She summarized it by saying: "The only way to live and especially if you are an artist, is to realize that certain things happen when they are supposed to happen. It's synchronicity.  One just falls in line with certain movements and people just when you are supposed to. I've lived a life of synchronicity."

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