Katherine Dunham


During the dance company’s touring years, she instituted The Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research in New York City in 1946, and later expanding to The Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts in 1952. It was during this period of the school that the world famous Katherine Dunham Technique, a modern dance style that combines Caribbean folk movement with ballet in the inimitable Dunham modernist approach, was born. The school was unique in that it not only gave professional dance classes in several genres besides Dunham technique, but also taught music, drama, languages, and anthropological fieldwork techniques. It became her institutional base where Dunham Technique was developed and codified, and many celebrities to be studied, and gave certificates in completion that were accredited by nearby Columbia University.

Part of her acclaim and mystique was due to her unique approach as an artist-scholar. In anthropology, she continued to lecture after her years at the University of Chicago, including at Yale and the Royal Anthropological Society in Brussels and London. While she directed her company, she published several ethnographies and biographies, including Dances of Haiti (1947, 1956, 1983), Journey to Accompong (1946, 1971), Island Possessed (1959, 1994), A Touch of Innocence (1969, 1994). Miss Dunham received numerous honors and awards, such as in 1957 the government of Haiti gave her its highest honor with Chevalier of Haitian Legion of Honor and Merit, and in 1983 she received Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. Katherine Dunham also received numerous honorary doctorates from prestigious universities from throughout the U.S.

Yet it is the Dunham Philosophy, dance as a “way of life,” that created the next stage of her life: the application of her technique and philosophy to community development in the economically depressed black community of East St. Louis. The philosophy behind the Katherine Dunham Technique, based in the integration of my mind, body, and sprit, became a tool to see if the arts could make a difference in people’s lives, and the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) was born in the mid-60s in East St. Louis after disbanding her dance company. During this period she lived both in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and as a world humanitarian she was ever vigilant as to the injustices particularly against her beloved Haitians. In 1992, at over 80 years of age, Miss Dunham undertook a 47-day hunger strike on behalf of the Haitian refugees in the U.S., who had fled under political persecution and were being inhumanely deported back to Haiti during George W. H. Bush’s administration. Her hunger strike galvanized world attention to the problem.

Katherine Dunham

Photo by Dwight Carter


Katherine Dunham in her Acaraje costume, designed by John Pratt.

Above and below: Katherine Dunham and company in Batucada, wearing costumes by John Pratt. 1947

Katherine Dunham


By Halifu Osumare

Katherine Dunham was a world famous dancer, choreographer, author, anthropologist, social activist, and humanitarian. Born in 1909 during the turn of the century Victorian era in the small town of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, she became one of the first dance anthropologists, started the first internationally-touring pre-dominantly black dance company with its own codified dance technique, became one of Hollywood’s first African-American choreographers, and authored many scholarly books and journalistic articles on dance and in the Caribbean.  

Her personal life is a fascinating tale. She was born to a French Canadian mother, Fanny June Taylor, and Albert Millard Dunham, who could trace his ancestry to Madagascar and West Africa. After her mother's early death, her father took her and her older brother Albert to Joliet, Illinois. She later followed her brilliant philosophy student brother to the University of Chicago. In Chicago, she was exposed to some of the key figures of black culture and theater who were shaping the 1920s Jazz Age, and had her first exposure to the vaudeville theater, the only genre open to African Americans at that time. She started her first fledgling dance company, know as Ballet Negre (the Negro Dance Company), while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago with some of the founders of American anthropology, as well as the famous Africanist Melville Herskovits at nearby Northwestern University. They encouraged her to synthesize dance and anthropology, which she did during her fieldwork for her Master’s thesis in Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and what was to become her second home, Haiti.

The Katherine Dunham Dance Company, established after her 16-month fieldwork in the Caribbean, became Katherine Dunham’s vehicle for her major contribution to the concert stage. She translated her vision of dance in the Africa diaspora, including the United States, into vivid works of choreography that shows a people’s culture. During her "World Tours" period (1938-1965) her company was one of the few major internationally recognized American dance companies that toured six continents. The success of the dance company was also due to her artistic collaboration with her brilliant designer husband, Canadian John Pratt, was the costume and set designer for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. However, during this period in her own country she also encountered many instances of racial discrimination, both in accommodations for her company and in segregated theaters where blacks were either relegated to the back row balcony or not allowed in at all. Dunham always fought against this racial discrimination, bringing several lawsuits and using her celebrity to bring attention to the African American plight. During this period, she created a repertoire of over 100 ballets for concert, Broadway, nightclubs and opera.

Barrelhouse Blues. Costumes by John Pratt.

Katherine Dunham in Veracruzana. Costume designed by John Pratt.

Katherine Dunham and company dancing Acaraje. Costumes by John Pratt.

Today, the Katherine Dunham Center for the Arts and Humanities (KDCAH) is the non-profit organization that oversees the institutions and cultural work that she started in the Southern Illinois region. The PATC, Institute for Intercultural Communication, The Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop, and the Katherine Dunham Museum, today are all housed in East St. Louis. KDCAH is administrative guardian of these programs, as well as the Annual Katherine Dunham Technique Seminar that takes place at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville each summer. When asked why she chose East St. Louis and Haiti as homes, after living in the greatest cities throughout the world, she simply says, “I always go where I am most needed.” Katherine has always tried to make a difference and in the process has become one of the world’s great humanitarians.

Over her lifetime, Katherine Dunham accomplished many firsts as a dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, educator, author, and world humanitarian. She died on May 21, 2006 in New York City. Her legacy continues through the efforts of her daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt, the Katherine Dunham Center for the Arts & Humanities, and the Institute for Dunham Technique Certification.