#3427: Katherine Dunham: A second letter from Carrier
• To: Haiti mailing list <haiti>
• Subject: #3427: Katherine Dunham: A second letter from Carrier
• From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett>
• Date: Tue, 2 May 2000 19:59:17 -0700 (PDT)
From: Ray Carrier <raycadien>
TO: Walter Isaacson - Managing Editor - TIME Magazine
As an international consultant who has always been interested in both history and current events, I read with great interest your recent feature profiling the 20 most influential Leaders and Revolutionaries of the past hundred years. I also noted that you intend to feature in a future issue individuals who you judge to have been the most influential Artists and Entertainers during the past century. I wish to bring to your attention a very special person who I feel greatly privileged to know, whose contributions, in my opinion, have not been sufficiently recognized, but whose accomplishments should qualify her to be listed in this category of prestigious personalities.
This giant of a lady I am referring to is Katherine Dunham, who is unfortunately less well known to the younger generations than she should be, but who in her prime was renowned internationally during the 40s, 50s and 60s as a dancer, choreographer, and director of the largest dance troupe in the USA. It is not only because she was a fantastically talented entertainer whose career spanned more than 50 years that she merits being considered as one of the most influential Artists and Entertainers of the 20th century, but more especially because of her major accomplishments in being a trail-blazer in helping to break down the racial barriers which were obstructing blacks in the performing arts from advancing and gaining the recognition, not to mention financial rewards, that their talents should have more readily provided.
Katherine Dunham was one of the pioneers who opened up and paved the way for black entertainers to follow, first on Broadway, then in the movies of Hollywood in the early 1940s. A few years later, in 1947, she was one of the first entertainers featured in Los Vegas when it was opened as an entertainment center. Without any financial subsidies from the US government (which were regularly granted to similar less-recognized American troupes of white performers), she managed to sustain for almost a quarter of a century her troupe of as many as 40 dancers and musicians on tours on all the major continents, performing in front of packed audiences in 57 different countries.
Anna Kisselgoff, a scholar of dance, in 1972 called Dunham ‘the major pioneer in Black theatrical dance' and ‘ahead of her time.' She goes on to state that ‘Before the concepts of ‘negritude' and ‘third world' were articulated, Miss Dunham - backed up by her academic studies of anthropology - had expressed in her own way the cultural ties of Black people everywhere.' When she began her professional dancing in the early 1930s (one of her first breaks was as a performer and choreographer for the Chicago World's Fair in 1934), black dance in America was not considered respectable. Dr. Melville Herskovitts, the pioneer anthropologist who founded the first university program of African studies in the USA, would write in 1941 that ‘In the United States, pure African dancing is almost entirely lacking.'
Another scholar (Blauner, 1970) would point out that ‘unlike other ethnic groups, blacks did not arrive with one cultural identity which survived or faded, as the case may be. They were socially fragmented, and to a great extent, culturally stripped.' In view of this, Katherine Dunham ‘was consciously and systematically creating a new image for Afro-American dance through her scholarship and through innovation in dance techniques.‘ (Joyce Aschenbrenner)
A recent article in the Washington Post notes that, ‘Dunham, an anthropologist as well as a dancer and choreographer, delved into the folkloric practices of the African diaspora to forge her stylized and widely copied technique. In introducing authentic African dance move- ments to her company and audiences, Dunham - perhaps more than any other choreographer of the time - exploded the possibilities of modern dance expression. A fusion of forms - ballet, modern dance and African dance - is central to her Caribbean-derived "Choros" of 1943, performed to Brazilian music." (Sarah Kaufman, May 10, 1998) A European critic would write in 1948 that ‘There is no doubt that Katherine Dunham and her dancers ... believe in the value of their own culture, arts and tradition as a medium of artistic expression and they refuse to pander to the audience.'
It can be concluded from this that, more than anyone else, by far, Katherine Dunham was responsible for changing these negative attitudes about dance among blacks themselves, and at the same time, for eliminating prejudices about black dancing styles among whites. In my personal opinion, this played a major role in changing social behavior universally, such that today even us white folks have finally been able to get rid of and be freed from many of our inhibitions and feelings of being ‘uptight' that were formerly so pervasive within our culture, and we can now be comfortable about getting up to let loose and ‘do our own thing' when we dance free-style on disco dance floors.
One scholar of the arts, Harold Cruse, wrote in 1964 that ‘The American performing arts are socially predicated on a culturally pluralistic tradition. Any report that discusses the future of theatre, dance, music in America must also discuss the race question, for it is precisely the race factor in American history that created American theatre, dance and music.'
All students of the history of the arts are well aware that Katherine Dunham ‘functioned as a catalyst and creative force in many aspects of American cultural and artistic life' in the historical process of developing Afro-American performing arts with emphasis on the dance, within the ‘social and political climate of a country in which a high degree of overt and covert racism was always present.' ‘Her early and life-long search for meaning and artistic values for black people, as well as for all peoples, has motivated, created opportunities for, and launched careers for generations of young black artists ... Afro-American dance was usually in the avant-garde of modern dance,' and ‘Dunham's entire career spans the period of the emergence of Afro- American dance as a serious art.'
Another black writer (Arthur Todd) in 1962 described her as a pioneer in establishing Afro-American dance as ‘one of our national treasures.' Regarding her impact and effect he wrote: ‘The rise of American Negro dance commenced ... when Katherine Dunham and her company sky-rocketed into the Windsor Theatre in New York, from Chicago, in 1940, and made an indelible stamp on the dance world... Miss Dunham opened the doors that made possible the rapid upswing of this dance for the present generation.' Another writer would appraise her success in the following words: ‘The development of black dance as an art without sacrificing the elemental characteristics is a mark of the genius and dedication of its exponents.'
Anthropologist St. Clair Drake would write that ‘The deep strain of Puritanism in American life that tended to turn sexuality into prurient interest was a constraint that serious black performers had to break through. By means of skilled choreography, Katherine Dunham was able to convey to her audiences that sexuality as expressed in some aspects of African and New World black tradition has symbolic meanings relevant to fertility as well as to sexual satisfaction, and that ostensibly erotic dancing can be cherished for the sheer joy of the bodily movement and display of dancing skill... Her dance encompasses over a forty-year time span, during which the attitudes of commentators to an unfamiliar art form underwent a substantial change.'
Among her many accomplishments was the development of what is called the Dunham Technique for training in dance, which won international acclaim. ‘As a result of her (anthropological) research (in the Caribbean, primarily in Haiti) Dunham distinguished three processes involving the African background of Black folk dance in the Western hemisphere. They are: the incorporation of African religious dance into new ritual behaviors; the secularization of African religious dance; and the interaction of African secular dance with European secular dance. Utilizing her gift for choreography, Dunham began the creation of compositions reflecting the varieties of Black folk dance she had studied. In order to train dancers to perform these works, Dunham developed a dance pedagogy based on Black dance in its Caribbean manifestation. This pedagogic vocabulary, Dunham technique, has been widely taught under many names.' (Richard Long, 1983)
Even though they did not give credit to Katherine Dunham, many dance schools taught Dunham technique, and choreographers plagiarized parts of her works . The late great Alvin Ailey (who in an interview just a short time before his death a few years ago stated that he first became interested in dance as a professional career after having seen a performance of Katherine Dunham's troupe as a young teenager of 14) called the Dunham technique ‘the closest thing to a unified Afro-American dance existing.'
In fact, ‘Today, it is safe to say, there is no American black dancer who has not been influenced by the Dunham technique, unless he or he works entirely within a classical genre; and the future of dance in America is presently being strongly influenced by Afro-American dancers and choreographers.' (Joyce Aschenbrenner) Of the black artists who have had success as dancers in ballet: Arthur Mitchell, Janet Collins (3 years leading ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera); Louis Johnson - who formed his own ballet company; Carmen de Lavallade of American Ballet Theatre; Christian Holder of Robert Joffrey Ballet - all studied and taught with Dunham.
In 1945 she opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in New York, (using box office receipts, not grants or subsidies to provide seed money, demonstrating her success on stage at the time) which had an initial enrolment of 350 students. In 1947 it was expanded and granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts. The curriculum included courses in dance, drama and cultural studies,. Schools inspired by it later opened in Paris, Stockholm and Rome by dancers trained by Ms. Dunham. Her alumni included among others, Eartha Kitt (who as a teenager won scholarship to her school and became one of her dancers), Marlon Brando, James Dean, Jose Ferrar, Jennifer Jones, Shelly Winters and Doris Duke.
In her Book of the Dance, Agnes De Mille described Katherine Dunham as ‘a consummate artist - the first person to organize a Negro troupe of concert caliber ... to set the example by founding a school, training dancers and offering sustained opportunity for performance under dignified conditions.'
What is less known is that she was not just an entertainer (she will turn 89 in June), but that she is an anthropologist / ethnologist / author / university professor and humanitarian. She was a practicing social scientist, and in 1935-36 had traveled widely in the Caribbean, particularly in Haiti, as a researcher conducting a comparative study of dance, which was sponsored by the Rosenwald and Guggenheim Foundations. Her mentors for this project were Dr. Robert Redfield from the University of Chicago, an anthropologist known for his interest in folk and peasant societies (acculturation) and his contributions in anthropological theory, and Dr. Melville Heskovitts of Northwestern University. She later completed studies for a master's degree in anthropology, with emphasis on dance and its relation to culture, from the prestigious University of Chicago, and in 1939, submitted her thesis entitled "Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function." She was offered a Rockefeller Grant for graduate work, but elected instead to dance professionally.
In January 1941 she gave a lecture demonstrations of her findings on the function of dance in Caribbean society at Yale University, and later regularly was a guest lecturer at the University of Chicago, UCLA and the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, among many others. In 1976 she was the Artist-in-Residence/Lecturer on Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Earlier, in 1967, she had accepted a permanent position as a professor of Dance Anthropology (for anthropology and dance students) at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, IL, and began developing a cultural arts center, the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis (where she still resides). Through the years she has published numerous articles about dance, and was the author of several autobiographical books, including Island Possessed. As an appreciation of her acceptance in scholastic circles, the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, among other famous scholars, wrote the introduction to one of her works.
British dance critic Richard Buckle would describe Dunham's work as ‘a disconcerting mixture of anthropological research, invented choreography in various styles; of satire; traditional tunes an flash orchestrations, would-be realistic and fantastically-styled costumes, meticulous planning and spontaneous verve ... Successful and entertaining.' One writer, James Grey, commented that ‘Katherine Dunham, in her most serious composition has made skillful and beautiful dramatizations of just such materials as anthropologists like Bronislav Malinowski and Margaret Mead have analyzed in their sober books.'
The following is a brief summary of Katherine Dunham's career.
While still a student at the University of Chicago, she studied ballet and modern dance with Madame Ludmilla Speranzev and became associated with Ruth Page and Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera Company. With their help, in 1930 (when she was only 21) she was able to rent a studio and to teach dancing, and her students became known as the Ballet Negre. The pupils of this school formed the core of the Negro Dance Group which 3 years later appeared for 2 weeks at the Abraham Lincoln Center. The same year she performed with the Chicago Civic Opera and then danced at the Chicago World's Fair.
In 1937 she first went to New York where she performed at the YWHA, which was well received, and the next year performed L'Ag ‘Ya, based on her research in Martinique, at the Federal Theatre in Chicago. In 1939 she returned to New York where she was dance director for Pins and Needles for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union at the New York Labor Stage. Later she performed Tropic and Le Jazz Hot at the Windsor Theatre in Broadway, where she and her group were highly acclaimed.
She was then invited to join the cast of the Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky with Ethel Waters. This was Georges Balanchine's first venture into a Broadway production (she also worked with Martha Graham during this period) and it proved to be an enormous success. Commenting about it in the New York Times, famed critic John Martin wrote that ‘throughout the evening Miss Dunham's chief business is to sizzle ... she is one hundred per cent seductress ... (her) very talents are innately lyric rather bumptious.' It closed in New York in February 1941 after 156 performances. Dunham and Company traveled with the show as it toured first in Boston, then in Toronto. When the show closed in Canada, its next stop was Detroit. Dunham continued with the show for the next four months while it played in Pittsburg, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The next year she starred in Star Spangled Rhythm, a Warner Brothers color film devoted to the company, it was one of the first war-time movies designed to maintain morale among American soldiers. Another dance movie produced in 1943, Stormy Weather, was her best known film and was also a great hit. After this she began to tour the United States in impresario Sol Hurok's Tropical Review. ‘During the course of the tour, Dunham and the troupe had recurrent problems with racial discrimination, leading her to a posture of militancy which was to characterize her subsequent career.'
In Boston in 1944, her Revue was banned although it was well received by audiences, causing newspaper critics to complain that this action was ‘too close to outmoded Puritanism and cultural witchburning for comfort.' The censors were complaining about Rites de Passage, ‘one of her most enduring works', about which Langston Hughes wrote that ‘Rather than being discriminated against, the Revue should have gained official praise for handling subjects legitimate to the dance, which might have been made offensive by less talented artists, in a delicate and delightful manner.'
They did so because ‘Dunham technique involves a different way of presenting and of ‘feeling' the human body than that to which they were accustomed, and they felt bound to reject its message. As the bastion of conservatism, these social arbitors were at the same time harbingers of a new creative impulse in American dance, stemming from Afro- American cultural expression in which human sexuality and other human traits were shown in different and positive terms, growing out of African and Caribbean religious conceptions. They grasped the implications of this perception of human potential, and they sensed its opposition to the ‘protestant ethic' as well as to religious dogmas.' ‘A reviewer for the Boston Herald Tribuneregarded Dunham as an "unconventional star" because she did not usurp the limelight": this despite the buildup in the popular media, which profits by the creation of "stars."
Beginning in 1947, she began to tour first in Mexico, then in Europe with Caribbean Rhapsody. ‘The impact of Dunham's company on Europe was comparable to that which Josephine Baker had made in the 1920s. The opening of Caribbean Rhapsody in London in 1948 was welcomed as bringing something new and necessary to the drab English post-war scene, still characterized by rationing and power shortages. The vivacity, the colorful costuming, and what was perceived as the panache of the primitive were all applauded.'
‘The tour was a grand success, and newspapers proclaimed that Katherine Dunham was sweeping Europe in a wave of popularity greater than that of Isadorra Duncan thirty years earlier. She also influenced hat styles on the continent as well as spring fashion collections, featuring the Dunham line and Caribbean Rhapsody, and the Chiroteque Française made a bronze cast of her feet for a museum of important personalities.' (Like so many other great black artists, she was always more favorably appreciated in Europe than in her own country, an unfortunate trend caused by the rampant racism that prevailed during that period in the USA.)
‘Richard Buckle, later to become well known as a ballet historian and critic, produced a handsome book, Katherine Dunham: Her Dancers, Singers, Musicians... His introductory essay managed to be at once laudatory and patronizing: "To some Katherine Dunham will be more interesting as a sociological that as an artistic phenomenon. It comes as a shock to learn that a Negro should successfully run the largest unsubsidized company of dancers in the United States ... that her company of magnificent dancers and musicians should have met with the success it has and that herself as explorer, thinker, inventor, organizer, and dancer should have reached so high a place in the estimation of the world, has done more than a million pamphlets could for the service of her people."
‘The reception of Dunham and her company in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent was as enthusiastic as it had been in England... The Dunham troupe, in the course of world-wide travels in the following decade, was to become the best-known American dance company in the world.' (Long) Regarding her tour in Paris, Boris Vian, French critic and jazz musician would write in a 1950 revue, ‘There is the great Katherine ... who has known how to combine with infinite talent, choreographic and ethnographical science, elements of authentic folklore, transposed through art, her very real ‘presence' and taste for colors, materials, jewels and attitude, that only belongs to people of her race.'
In 1949, she appeared in the first hour-long American Spectaculars televised by NBC, followed by television spectaculars on BBC in London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Sidney (Australia), Mexico and Germany. Later, in 1978, a special about her entitled Divine Drumbeatswas featured in the PBS Dance in America series, and 2 years later the Dunham group completed the filming of Rites de Passage for the same series, and was shown as a special entitled Katherine Dunham and her People,
The years from 1950 to 1957 included tours of South America (she was a house guest of Evita Peron in Argentina), Europe, North Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and the United States, when she was not involved in directing choreographies for several movies. In retrospect, it can be concluded that ‘Dunham's company, supported by means of extensive tours throughout the USA, Europe, Latin America, Africa and the Far East, has been a nucleus of influence radiating into black communities throughout the world.' (Aschenbrenner) ‘The overall achievement of creating and maintaining what became a major cultural institution, totally without subsidy, has few parallels in dance history.' (Long)
‘While she was recognized as "unofficially" representing US cultural life in her foreign tours, she was given very little assistance of any kind by the State Department. Her group performed Southland - a ballet dramatizing a lynching - in Santiago, Chile, despite the strong opposition expressed by the State Department to this performance. As a result, she experienced "difficulties" on her tours which were apparent reminders of her precarious status.'
‘While the State Department subsidized other less well-known groups, it refused to support the Dunham company (even when entertaining the army troops) although it took credit for them as "unofficial artistic and cultural representatives." The State Department repeatedly scheduled performances of their subsidized groups in conflict with those of the Dunham company; they invited ambassadors and other officials to these performances, despite the protests of officials and recommendations that Dunham's company be supported.'
In 1966 she was appointed by the US government as Technical Cultural Advisor to the President of Senegal for the first Pan-African World Festival of the Negro Arts. After it was over, President Senghor complimented her in stating that her company had ‘caused a cultural revolution that paralleled their political and economic revolutions.'
Over the years spanning her career she received a great many awards in recognition of her unique contributions to the advancement of black dance. This included being conferred over a dozen honorary doctorates from universities (particularly those for women) not only in the USA, but abroad as well. ‘In 1968, Katherine Dunham belatedly received the Dance Magazine award, which represents considerable recognition by the ‘art establishment' Then, ‘on January 15, 1979, she was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for her contribution to the performing arts and her humanitarian work.
On that occasion at Carnegie Hall, three generations of Dunham dancers performed dances from her various productions throughout the years.' Among the numerous awards she received, perhaps the most important was the Kennedy Center Honors Award presented to her by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 (she was the only woman awarded that year, the others included Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart).
Katherine Dunham ‘has (always) expressed deep sensitivity to social injustice... In the Sixties, the ‘Black Power' upsurge was sweeping the ghettos with a wave of unplanned, disconcerting violence, she accepted the challenge to become directly involved with inner-city youth and to teach dance in such an area. She moved from the Carbondale campus of Southern Illinois University, where she had been artist-in-residence, to the East St. Louis Center of the Edwardsville campus. Here she would be close to the exploding energy of black youth and begin to apply some of the ideas she held about the role of dance and theatre in black communities of the USA.
Choosing a city that, when she was a small child, had experienced one of the worst race riots in American history and was again devestated during the race protests of 1968 (she still today lives in a depressed neighborhood right in the middle of the ghetto), she established an integrated educational venture, using art as one of the methods of arousing awareness, of stimulating life to be thinking, observant, comparative, not automatic; of surpassing alienation, and of serving as a rational alternative to violence and genocide.' (St. Clair Drake)
Not hesitating to take unconventional approach to solving problems, she reached out to meet with local gang leaders to bring them together and convince them to support her efforts. On one such occasion, the local white police, not knowing who they were dealing with, even arrested and jailed her, then to their embarrassment quickly released her when the newspapers worldwide publicized their head-handed methods toward an internationally-known celebrity. ‘Through her support and aid to black youth during the troubled 1960s, she was able to defuse some of their more self-destructive tendencies... Her presence and her work in East St. Louis have produced a generation of aware and broadly educated young people, contributing to a resurgence of hope in that city as reflected in its political, as well as cultural and social life.' (Aschenbrunner)
Years earlier ‘Miss Dunham also played an important role in changing race relations in Brazil. As a result of an attempt to discriminate against her in a hotel - out of which grew an international cause celebre - the government of Brazil apologized formally and announced that it had taken corrective action through anti-discrimination legislation.'
Further to her lengthy stay in Haiti during the mid-30s, Miss Dunham regularly returned there with her troupe to recuperate from the exhaustion of being months on extended tours, and eventually adopted it as her second spiritual home. In 1992 this remarkable woman once again demonstrated that she would not shirk from taking forceful and dramatic action in protestation against the overwhelming forces of the conventional American political system when confronted with what she strongly felt was social injustice.
Shortly after the illegal coup d'etat which took place in that ill-fated country, in an expression of solidarity with the Haitian people, she (at the age of 83) began a hunger strike to protest against the Bush Administration's new discriminatory policy of repatriation of Haitian boat-people (as contrasted to treatment typically accorded to Cuban refugees for similar activities).
Almost immediately afterward, members of the community and others from around the country who were sympathetic to her initiatives began to mount 24-hour vigils in support of her courageous act, under the leadership of former comedian/political activist Dick Gregory. Although for weeks the major media organizations ignored her actions, tending typically to disregard individuals who have the nerve to buck the system, the word rapidly spread throughout the country, and thousands of individuals rushed forward to express their solidarity with her brave initiative. Many prominent social figures flocked to her bedside to pay her homage, including influential persons in the fields of entertainment (such as Jonathan Demme, director of the recent award-winning movie Philadelphia, and politics (including Louis Farrakhan). Only after the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the deposed President of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, came to her bedside and begged her to stop putting her life in danger in support of this cause did she, 47 days after she began, finally stop her fast. Right after this, the ABC television network nominated Katherine Dunham as its Person of the Week on its News program.
Of the numerous books which contain information about the life and career of this special lady, the following are especially recommended:
- Katherine Dunham - A Biography. Ruth Beckford. NY: Marcel Decker. 1979
- Katherine Dunham - Reflections on the Social and Political Contexts of Afro-American Dance. Joyce Aschenbrunner. CORD 1980 Dance Research Annual XII
- The Black Tradition in American Dance. Richard A. Long. NY: Rizzoli. 1983, Reprinted 1990. (Dedicated to Katherine Dunham, with many beautiful photos..
Your consideration of possibly including Katherine Dunham in your magazine special among the group of the most influential Artists and Entertainers during the 20th century would be greatly appreciated.