The Influential Katherine Dunham

Just a few jottings about African American dance giant Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), since we’ve had a couple of occasions to mention this pathmaker in the past. Dunham was a Chicago teenager when she began studying the Eurhymthic philosophy of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. Following high school she studied ballet with prominent teachers like Ludmilla Speranzeva and Ruth Page, and became interested in world dance forms from many nations. At the University of Chicago she studied anthropology, and much like Zora Neale Hurston, she did serious field work in the Caribbean that would also subsequently fuel her art. In the ’30s she began to get prestigious choreography work and to build her own dance troupe. Her company toured the United States and Europe and performed numerous times on Broadway, in such shows as Cabin in the Sky (1940-41), Tropical Revue (1943-45), Blue Holiday (1945), Concert Variations (1945), Carib Song (1945), Bal Negre (1946), and Katherine Dunham and Her Company (1950 and 1955). From 1945 through 1957 she also operated a prestigious dance school. Dunham’s most notable students and company members as exponents of her teachings included Eartha Kitt and the Holder Bothers, although many Broadway and film stars, white and black, took her classes. Her performance company folded in 1960. Thereafter she free-lanced all over the world as a choreographer and teacher. One of Dunham’s most notable later projects was the choreographer for the posthumous world premier of the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha.