Dunham, Katherine

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Legendary dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham was born June 22, 1909, to an African American father and French-Canadian mother who died when she was young. At an early age, Dunham became interested in dance. However, she did not seriously pursue a career in the profession until she was a student at the University of Chicago.

During her studies, Dunham attended a lecture on anthropology, where she was introduced to the concept of dance as a cultural symbol. Intrigued by this theory, Dunham began to study African roots of dance and, in 1935, she traveled to the Caribbean for field research. Dunham was exposed to sacred ritual dances performed by people on the islands of Haiti and Jamaica. She returned to the United States in 1936 informed by new methods of movement and expression, which she incorporated into techniques that transformed the world of dance.

In 1940, she formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which became the premier facility for training dancers. Alumnae include Eartha Kitt, Marlon Brando and Julie Belafonte. Dunham is credited with introducing international audiences to African aesthetics and establishing African dance as a true art form. Called the "Matriarch of Black Dance," her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique, which she performed with her dance troupe in venues around the world. Her many original works include L'ag'ya, Shango and Bal Negre. She also choreographed and appeared in Broadway musicals, operas and the film Cabin in the Sky. The Dunham troupe toured for two decades, stirring audiences around the globe with their dynamic and highly theatrical performances. These experiences provided ample material for the numerous books, articles and short stories Dunham authored.

Dunham accepted a position at Southern Illinois University in East St. Louis in the 1960s. During her tenure, she secured funding for the Performing Arts Training Center, where she introduced a program designed to channel the energy of the community's youth away from gangs and into dance. Dunham was always a formidable advocate for racial equality, boycotting segregated venues in the United States and using her performances to highlight discrimination. She made national headlines by staging a hunger strike to protest the U.S. government's repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants.

Throughout her distinguished career, Dunham earned numerous honorary doctorates, awards and honors. She was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors Award, the Plaque d'Honneur Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce Award, and a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Dunham passed away on Sunday, May 21, 2006 at the age of 96.

From The HistoryMakers™ biography: https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/A2000.020

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Hand, Learned, 1872-1961. Papers, 1840-1961 Harvard Law School Library Langdell Hall Cambridge, MA 02138
referencedIn Katherine Dunham collection, [ca. 1941-ongoing]. Museum of Performance & Design
referencedIn Turbyfill, Mark, 1896-1990. Mark Turbyfill papers, 1911-1985. Newberry Library
creatorOf Leslie, Caird. Papers, 1915-1965. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Photograph collection on Katherine Dunham, 1938-1959 University of California, Irvine. Library. Department of Special Collections
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. Katherine Dunham papers, 1919-1968. Southern Illinois University, Morris Library
referencedIn Katherine Dunham Dance Companies. [Programs] New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Turbyfill, Mark, 1896-1990. Selected Mark Turbyfill letters, 1907-1966. Southern Illinois University, Morris Library
referencedIn Berenson, Bernard and Mary. Papers, 1880-2002, 1880-2002 Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti - The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies
referencedIn Stravinsky-Diaghilev Foundation research files, 1920-1989. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn John Jay Chapman papers, 1841-1940. Houghton Library
referencedIn Johnson, Helen A. Helen Armstead-Johnson miscellaneous theater collections, 1831-1993. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Dance scrapbooks, c1951-1978 Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance: Laban Archive
referencedIn Whiteman, Maxwell,. Whiteman Photographic Collection, 1860-1960. Temple University Libraries, Paley Library
referencedIn Theatre Arts Monthly, collection of portraits, ca., ca., 1924-1939 (bulk), 1916-1964 (inclusive). Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
referencedIn Robbins, Jerome. Musical comedies. Concert varieties. [Programs] New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Katherine Dunham [ca. 1945-ongoing]. Museum of Performance & Design
referencedIn Van Scott, Glory. Glory Van Scott collection, 1974-2000. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Berenson, Bernard, 1865-1959. Bernard and Mary Berenson, Papers (1880-2002, bulk 1880-1959) : a finding aid. Houghton Library
referencedIn Pratt, John, 1912?-1986. Reminiscences of John Pratt : oral history, 1981. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
creatorOf Jackson, Frederick, 1886-1953. Stormy weather : continuity and dialogue taken from the screen / Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation ; screen play by Frederick Jackson and Ted Koehler ; produced by William Le Baron ; directed by Andrew Stone. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. Correspondence and contracts, 1946-1963. New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn American Ballet Theatre records, 1936-ca. 1967 The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
referencedIn Caird Leslie papers, 1915-1965 The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
referencedIn Barrelhouse blues (Choreographic work : Dunham) [clippings] New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Yarborough, Lavinia Williams. Lavinia Williams papers 1940-1989. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
referencedIn Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Co. Washington Bureau. Pittsburgh Courier, Washington Bureau collection, 1946-1968. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
referencedIn Walter Terry papers, 1913-1982 The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. Scrapbook: Clippings, announcements, programs and photographs, New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Jones, Lois Mailou. Lois Mailou Jones papers, 1920-1998. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. Reminiscences of Katherine Dunham : oral history, 1981. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn RISM Vertical Files, Bulk, 1960-2000, Bulk, 1960-2000 1900-2004 New York University. Archives
referencedIn African Americans in the Performing Arts Ephemera Collection, 1925-1945 Syracuse University. Library. Special Collections Research Center
referencedIn Helen Armstead-Johnson miscellaneous theater collections, 1831-1993 The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.
referencedIn Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964. Carl Van Vechten collection, ca. 1920-ca. 1955; (bulk 1940-1949). Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University
creatorOf Durham, W. H. (Willard Higley), b. 1883. W.H. Durham papers, 1918-1949. UC Berkeley Libraries
referencedIn Souvenir programs for theatrical productions, 1906-2005. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. Correspondence. New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Dannay, Frederic, 1905-1982. Papers, ca.1920-1982. Columbia University in the City of New York, Columbia University Libraries
referencedIn Online Archive of California. Photograph collection on Katherine Dunham , 1938-1959. University of California, Irvine. Library. Department of Special Collections
referencedIn Barrelhouse blues (Choreographic work : Dunham) [clippings] New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
referencedIn Frederic Dannay Papers, ca.1920-1982. Columbia University. Rare Book an Manuscript Library
referencedIn George Balanchine archive, 1924-1989 (inclusive), 1961-1983 (bulk). Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. [Programs]. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Dunham, Katherine. Miscellaneous manuscripts. New York Public Libraries for the Performing Arts, Dance Collection
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf The HistoryMakers Video Oral History with Katherine Dunham The HistoryMakers
Relation Name
correspondedWith American Ballet Theatre corporateBody
correspondedWith Baker, Josephine person
correspondedWith Balanchine, George. person
correspondedWith Belafonte, Harry, 1927- person
associatedWith Berenson, Bernard, 1865-1959. person
associatedWith Berenson, Mary, 1864-1945 person
correspondedWith Chapman, John Jay, 1862-1933 person
associatedWith Dannay, Frederic, 1905-1982. person
associatedWith Demby, Dorothy, person
associatedWith Destiné, Jean Léon. person
correspondedWith Duke, Doris, 1912-1993 person
associatedWith Durham, W. H. (Willard Higley), b. 1883. person
associatedWith Hand, Learned, 1872-1961 person
correspondedWith Handy, W. C. (William Christopher), 1873-1958 person
associatedWith Jackson, Frederick, 1886-1953. person
associatedWith Johnson, Helen A. person
associatedWith Jones, Lois Mailou. person
associatedWith Katherine Dunham Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Katherine Dunham Dance Companies. corporateBody
associatedWith Katherine Dunham Dance Companies. corporateBody
associatedWith Kitt, Eartha. person
associatedWith Langston, C. H. (Charles Hughes), b. 1821? person
associatedWith Leslie, Caird. person
correspondedWith McQueen, Butterfly person
associatedWith Morris, Lenwood. person
associatedWith Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Co. Washington Bureau. corporateBody
associatedWith Pratt, John, 1912?-1986. person
correspondedWith Quinn, Anthony person
correspondedWith Quinn, Anthony, 1915-2001 person
correspondedWith Robeson, Paul person
associatedWith Simone Michelle; Pauline Ryall; Peter Lancelot WIlliams; Dierdre McMahon person
associatedWith Stravinsky-Diaghilev Foundation. corporateBody
associatedWith Terry, Walter person
associatedWith Turbyfill, Mark, 1896-1990. person
associatedWith Van Scott, Glory. person
associatedWith Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964. person
associatedWith Yarborough, Lavinia Williams. person
associatedWith Yarborough, Lavinia Williams. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (N.Y.)
Caribbean Area
Glen Ellyn (Ill.)
Haiti
United States
Subject
Choreography
Dancers
Choreographers--Interviews
Dance--Anthropological aspects
African American dance
Irish literature--19th century
Dancers--Interviews
Voodooism
Modern dance
Folk music
Occupation
Choreographer
Dancer
Dance Instructor
Choreographer
Activity

Person

Birth 1909-06-22

Death 2006-05-21

Birth 19090622

Death 20060521

Americans

English

Information

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