New York's Carnegie Hall was filled to capacity on the night of January 15, 1979, when Katharine Dunham (b. 1909 - d. 2006) was presented with that year's Albert Schweitzer Music Award "for a life's work dedicated to music and devoted to humanity." The night was billed as "A Katharine Dunham Gala," and three generations of Katherine Dunham dancers and musicians performed some of the works of the dancer, choreographer, and scholar who revolutionized American dance by going to the anthropological roots of black dance and ritual and transforming them into a significant artistic choreography that spoke to all.
This pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography, considered one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement, is a woman who understood dance, with its roots, images, and implications. Through it, she showed the world that African American heritage is beautiful.
She has been called a "hip-sweeping anthropologist," "a scholar and serious lecturer of note," "the hottest thing to hit Chicago since Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked the bucket," and "an authoritative interpreter of primitive dance rhythm." She made her debut as a dancer on Broadway in the 1930s, sporting a bird cage on her head and a cigar in her mouth—but for a reason. Such accoutrements were standard for the ladies who circulated around Caribbean ports, a lesson her anthropology studies had taught her.
As a child, Katie (as she was called) was quite a success in dance recitals at school in Joliet, Ill., a predominantly white community where her father ran a dry cleaning establishment. She never thought about a career in dance. Instead, she followed her family's wish that she become a teacher and majored in anthropology at the University of Chicago. Still, she continued dancing as a student of Ludmilla Speranzeva, formerly of the Moscow Theater, Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page. During this period, Dunham founded a company called, alternately, Ballet Negre and the Negro Dance Group, which developed into the famous Katharine Dunham Dance Company.
After her first public appearance with her group at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater in A Negro Rhapsody, and dancing with the Chicago Opera Company, she applied for and received a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to study anthropology and dancing in the Caribbean.
She lived for a time among the isolated people on Jamaica. As the people came to know her, they let her see their most secret rites, like the Myal dance, based on the belief that the dead come back to life. Dunham wrote some scholarly essays during her trip and sold lighter magazine articles about the Caribbean under the name of K. Dunn. Much later, she was to write her autobiography, A Touch of Innocence (1959).
In the late 1930s, she abandoned scholarship for dancing. She went to New York to coach the dancers in the Labor Stage production of Pins and Needles and, on the side, presented a series of Sunday afternoon concerts.
She first appeared on the New York stage semi-professionally at the Windsor Theater in January 1938 in Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. She appeared at the Martin Beck Theater in October 1940 as Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, for which she also arranged the choreography. She then toured the United States and Canada in Tropical Revue. She co-directed and danced in Carib Song at the Adelphi Theater in New York in 1945, and was producer, director, and star of Bal Negre at the Belasco Theater in New York in 1946.
Her first appearance in London was at the Prince of Wales Theatre in June 1948 with her own company in Caribbean Rhapsody, which was already a success in the United States, and with which she was to tour Europe. It was the first time Europe had seen black dance as an art form and also the first time that the special elements of American modern dance appeared outside America.
Dunham continued to dance, choreograph and direct on Broadway with such productions as Katharine Dunham and Her Company and Bamboche. The latter was in 1962, after a seven-year absence from New York. The three-act revue first introduced to America the dancers of Morocco, who appeared by permission of King Hassan II.
With Aida in 1963, Dunham continued to secure her place in artistic history by becoming the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. Dunham first appeared in films in 1940 in Carnival of Rhythm. Her other film credits include Cabin in the Sky, Star Spangled Rhythm, Stormy Weather, and Casbah. She also did the choreography for Pardon My Sarong.
Except for a brief appearance in 1965, Dunham has not performed regularly since 1962 and has concentrated instead on her choreography. One of her major works was the choreographing and directing of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha in 1972.
She dissolved her company in 1965 to become advisor to the cultural ministry of Senegal, returning to the Untied States in 1967. She left the conventional dance world of New York that year to live and work in East St. Louis at an inner-city branch of the Southern Illinois University, running a school attached to the University and working with neighborhood and youth groups.
The living Dunham tradition has persisted. She was a woman far ahead of her time. She considers her technique "a way of life." The classes at her Manhattan school during the 1940s and the 1950s (attended by artists such as Marlon Brando and Eartha Kitt) were noted for their liberating influence.
Her mastery of body movement was considered "phenomenal." She was hailed for her smooth and fluent choreography and dominated a stage with what has been described as "an unmitigated radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance."