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Katherine Dunham's Legacy Lives On

Updated on December 18, 2015
Robsthe1 profile image

I started working in the performing arts industry after attending Colgate University in 1981. My early work was as a personal manager.

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham on the premiere magazine, La Danse Noire.
Katherine Dunham on the premiere magazine, La Danse Noire.

The Dunham Technique

The Dunham Technique in modern dance is a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement—a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving—which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance.

Katherine Dunham was a Trailblazer

When you consider the many, many accolades bestowed on Katherine Dunham's career and life, it immediately occurs to you that this was a woman who meant more to people than her contributions to dance. Katherine Dunham transformed people's lives to believe that there was something much more in them than they could have imagined.

This is perhaps the legacy that she herself would embrace over any accolades. Not that she started the first Black dance troupe in 1931 that would travel the world over and lasted over a thirty year period; not that she created iconic roles on the Broadway stage for her performance as Georgia Brown in "Cabin In The Sky", or brought her emergent dance style to Hollywood in the films, "Stormy Weather", "Pardon My Sarong", or "Star Spangled Rhythm".

She would embrace the difference she made in the lives of the people who she came in contact with, giving them the belief in the ability to pull out of themselves something greater for their lives. That's Katherine Dunham's greatest legacy.

This is how and what Katherine Dunham meant to a young Earth Kitt who was disavowed by her White father and given away by her impoverished mother as a child,

"When I was a teenager in New York, I was working in a factory mending clothes, but I dreamed of joining the Katherine Dunham ballet company," she recalls.

"And on the very day I was fired from the factory, I picked up my girlfriend, went to the movies, and outside the theater a girl walked up to me and asked me for directions to Max Factor's makeup shop, where she had been sent by Katherine Dunham!"

"So I asked her to take me to the Dunham school, and while I was waiting to see Miss Dunham, they were giving auditions, and my girlfriend said to me, `I dare you to join the class.'

"I took the dare, someone threw me a rehearsal garment, I walked into the class laughing my head off, followed the teacher's instructions and won a full scholarship, on the spot."

Eartha Kitt went on to become one of America's greatest entertainers because of her start with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in 1943.

Born in 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and raised in Joliet, Illinois, her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar. Her mother, Fanny June Dunham (née Taylor), who was of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage, died when Katherine was three years old. After her father's remarriage a few years later, the family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Joliet, Illinois, where Mr. Dunham ran a dry cleaning business.

Katherine was drawn to the vibrant cultural climate of the 1920s in Chicago that fueled her development in the arts and social sciences. She would attend the University of Chicago where she majored in anthropology and studied dance with Ludmilla Speranzeva, Vera Mirova, Mark Turbyfill and Adolph Bolm.

For over 30 years, Katherine Dunham maintained the only permanent self-subsidized dance troupe in America, keeping the company going with nightclub engagements, Hollywood Bowl appearances, literary writings and concert touring in 57 countries in Europe, Australia, Asia and South America. She published books, articles and recorded music in Mexico, Paris and New York in order to keep the school funded and thriving.

In 1943, Ms. Dunham established a base philosophy for dance and a school, widely known today as the "Dunham Technique". She opened her Dunham School of Arts and Research in 1946 in New York City.

The school offered studies in performing arts, applied skills, anthropology, languages, humanities, percussion, philosophy, costume design, theater make-up and Caribbean research.

During her heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Dunham was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America and was widely popular in the United States, where the Washington Post called her "Dancer ~ Katherine the Great".

Dunham would become a New York fixture where thousands of young dancers would be trained and performers would come to participate in the "Dunham Technique", creating their own visions of dance and launching schools or shows.

One of the most notable and successful protégé's of Dunham would be Alvin Ailey who would become a dance pioneer in his own right and whose Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is today a vibrant place for young dance artists. The Ailey Dance Ensembles under the artistic direction of dance legend, Judith Jamison, tours the world over to thousands of admiring patrons.

“Mr. Ailey was always very, very fond of Ms. Dunham since I can remember. Alvin would come to New York and come to the Dunham School, and he would take class… He loved the way it made the body strong—he always talked about it—the strength, the technique it gave dancers", says Joan Peters a dancer of Dunham's technique in the Ailey Company.

Alvin Ailey felt so passionate about Dunham’s work that he mounted an entire evening of her choreography. Denise Jefferson, Director of the Ailey School, recalls the program that Ailey created. “I think the biggest project I remember was when Alvin collaborated with Ms. Dunham and created a whole evening of her work, ‘The Magic of Katherine Dunham,’ and it was the centerpiece of our season at that time, and it was quite a stunning production. He felt that she was very important in his life as a symbol of what an African-American in dance could do. The fact that she was able to perform in legitimate theaters with her company let him know that he could do the same. She was quite an icon for him, and it meant a great deal that he could produce her work with his company.”

Some of Ailey’s works that incorporate the Dunham technique include “Blues Suite,” “Cry,” “Masekela Language,” “Survivors,” and his masterpiece, “Revelations.”

East St. Louis, Missouri

Although New York became Katherine's hub for her "Dunham Technique" classes and school and works (she also lived in Haiti for a time that fueled her dance techniques), her heart belonged to East St. Louis, Missouri where she lived for many years and was a tireless community worker for a city that was at one time ripe with crime and economic depravity in the Sixties, but whose people were her people with a warmth that touched her very soul.

The youth of East St. Louis were caught up in violence during the Civil Rights period when Katherine settled there.

Impoverished young people in East St. Louis had no other outlets to express themselves besides mobilizing into violence. Dunham recognized a need for the arts in the city, one which had no theatres or cinemas.

More than a need for the arts Dunham saw that young people needed an identity, one formulated not by violence but by positive contributions to their community and the surrounding world. A deep desire to aid those in need brought Dunham to East St. Louis.

A story that Katherine recounts in her memoirs and that people all over the country were amazed by hearing, but that shows her truest heart, is when she was arrested in 1967 after demanding to know why two young Black men, who were members of a gang she was trying to convince to join her school, were put into custody right in front of her.

Her demands landed her a disorderly conduct arrest, and a three and half hour stay in jail. Once the officials found out who she was, she was released and charges were dropped, but not until the news hit the streets and spread throughout the country. She was later given the keys to the city by the Mayor who really embraced what Katherine was attempting to do in underlining the city's problems with its youth.

Dunham truly believed that dance could help make that difference in these young people's lives. She had seen it do so for so many she had come in contact with over the years, like Eartha Kitt, who was an abandoned teenager who had nothing materialistically, but refused to be a victim.

Dunham would site for a documentary some time later her feelings at the time, where she said of her beloved community of East St. Louis,

"I think [our young] people have lost something—the idea of what dance is. Everybody seems to be in it for matter of personal pleasure, but there is more to it than that, such as expressing your culture, expressing the meaning your life, the meaning of the people you came from, your family, and your roots, and that kind of thing. Dance does this, it’s in there, we just have to take it out and use it."

Years later, as an elderly woman living in a retirement community in New York City, it was always Dunham's desire to return to East St. Louis to live out the remainder of her life. And the people of the city had prepared a huge welcoming home for her return, but sadly, at age 96, Katherine passed away peacefully in her sleep at her home in New York on May 21st, 2006.

She wrote of her remarkable life, "I was put here by some force; this child is supposed to grow up into a woman who has courage and wisdom and is to do certain things."

"I used to want the words on my tombstone to read, 'She tried'. Now I want it to read, 'She did it."

Indeed she did.











Geoffrey and Carmen

It was in the 1954 Broadway musical "House of Flowers", where Holder met fellow dancer Carmen DeLavallade, and the two were married in 1955.
It was in the 1954 Broadway musical "House of Flowers", where Holder met fellow dancer Carmen DeLavallade, and the two were married in 1955.

A Special Dedication to Geoffrey Holder

At the time this article was published, I learned that world renowned Actor/Dancer/Choreographer, Geoffrey Holder's health had taken a downward turn. He had been ill with pneumonia.

Sadly, he passed away at his home in New York City on Sunday, October 5th, 2014.

Geoffrey Holder was 84 years old.

So this article is a special dedication to him as he certainly was a benefactor of, and friend to Katherine Dunham.

Holder taught classes at Katherine Dunham's Dance School in New York City for two years to support himself in the mid 1950s.

His impressive height at 6 feet 6 inches, and his formal attire at a dance recital, attracted the attention of producer Arnold Saint Subber who arranged for him to play Samedi, a Haitian conjurer, in Harold Arlen's 1954 Broadway musical "House of Flowers".

During the run, Holder met fellow dancer Carmen DeLavallade, and the two married in 1955 at a friend's estate in Westport, CT. And they remained married for 59 years until his death.

Although Holder won Tony Awards for direction and costume design for 'The Wiz', the all-black musical version of 'The Wizard of Oz', in 1975, it will most likely always be his iconic portrayal of Baron Samedi, the henchman in the classic James Bond film, 'Live and Let Die'; and his uncanny "Uncola" 70s 7-Up Soft Drink commercials with that boisterous laugh that he will be remembered for by the general public.

Born on the 1st of August, 1930, the Trinidadian actor, choreographer, director, dancer, painter, costume designer, singer and voice-over artist has lived a very fulfilled life.

Rest In Peace Geoffrey Holder. Like Katherine Dunham before you, you have been a positive influence with your contributions to the Performance Arts World on so many fronts, and you did it always with integrity and substance that transcended your gifts.

Geoffrey Holder's Sunrise and Sunset: 1 August 1930 - 5 October 2014




7-Up "Uncola" Commercial

Live and Let Die - Baron Samedi

Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham

Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, Dunham’s daughter says, “Alvin Ailey was really the only one who took over some of her creations.”
Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, Dunham’s daughter says, “Alvin Ailey was really the only one who took over some of her creations.”

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater - Lift

Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt gives Katherine Dunham all of the credit for her career and allowing her to find greatness within herself.
Eartha Kitt gives Katherine Dunham all of the credit for her career and allowing her to find greatness within herself.

Eartha Kitt danced in the Katherine Dunham Dance Company

Kitt appeared in the 1945 original Broadway production of the musical "Carib Song".
Kitt appeared in the 1945 original Broadway production of the musical "Carib Song".

This is a dance sequence with Katherine Dunham and her Company in the film Casbah (1948). She makes her film debut here as a member of the company.

Stormy Weather

Dunham's choreography was stunning in the 1943 film of "Stormy Weather"
Dunham's choreography was stunning in the 1943 film of "Stormy Weather"

Dunham's Choreography in 1943's 'Stormy Weather'

Katherine Dunham's Legacy Lives On

Katherine Dunham lived to be 96 and was just a few days short of her 97th birthday when she passed away.
Katherine Dunham lived to be 96 and was just a few days short of her 97th birthday when she passed away.

Katherine Dunham

"I certainly feel my career was a great career because it inspired so many many people, literally hundreds of people to follow a new kind of life and to realize that they could make out and advance their own professional and private and social lives."

Katherine Dunham Video Biography

Dunham's Influence

2009 was the 100th anniversary of Katherine Dunham’s birth. Heralded as the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her contributions to the field of dance and anthropology are still felt to this day.
2009 was the 100th anniversary of Katherine Dunham’s birth. Heralded as the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her contributions to the field of dance and anthropology are still felt to this day.

"A Day of Dunham"

Keeping the Legacy alive means for Katherine Dunham's students and friends, having national events with workshops and seminars and tributes that not only keep the dance alive, but that empowers young people to maintain their sense of self and integrity, and to know who they are and where they come from for theirs and their children's futures.

This is the case for Carol Lloyd of La Danse Noire whose slogan is: "Illuminating The Black Dance Experience". A non-profit, educational organization based in Atlanta, Georgia (USA).

La Danse Noire's primary mission is to pay homage and acknowledgement to Black dance through various presentations including print, broadcast and public mediums.

The online repository is a compilation of images, photos, reports, articles, obituaries, tributes, events and oral accounts.

The print publication will be produced quarterly to celebrate the history of Black dance, its pioneers and the ongoing continuum in the field.

To commemorate this mission, La Danse Noire will have an all-day function and posthumous tribute to Katherine Dunham's legacy.

There will be workshops performed by Master Dunham students on "The Dunham Technique"; various performances by local dance troupes, followed later in the evening by a dinner and soiree with specially invited guests, former Dunham students and patrons.

The Executive Producer of this event, Ms. Carol Lloyd, and founder of La Danse Noire, is a second generation student of Katherine Dunham's, and was personally selected by Dunham herself to carry on these types of events and her legacy in Atlanta.

"Dunham's Technique changed my life and can help hundreds of youth here in Atlanta and around the country". ~ Carol Lloyd


Founder of La Danse Noire, Carol Lloyd

"I am the living embodiment of Ms. Dunham's concept of socialization through the Arts", says Ms. Lloyd.
"I am the living embodiment of Ms. Dunham's concept of socialization through the Arts", says Ms. Lloyd. | Source

A Preservation and Celebration

La Danse Noire is Carol Lloyd's way of preserving the Culture of African Amercan's contributions to Dance.
La Danse Noire is Carol Lloyd's way of preserving the Culture of African Amercan's contributions to Dance. | Source

All-Star Tribute to Katherine Dunham

Former Dunham students and now famed choreographers and performers themselves will be in Atlanta, GA. for this legacy celebration of Katherine Dunham.
Former Dunham students and now famed choreographers and performers themselves will be in Atlanta, GA. for this legacy celebration of Katherine Dunham.

Trina Parks

First African American Female Bond Villain in the James Bond film, "Diamonds Are Forever", Trina Parks is a Dunham student who has her own dance troupe in Palm Springs, California called, THE PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL DANCE THEATER"
First African American Female Bond Villain in the James Bond film, "Diamonds Are Forever", Trina Parks is a Dunham student who has her own dance troupe in Palm Springs, California called, THE PALM SPRINGS HISTORICAL DANCE THEATER"

Broadway Dancer, Frances Davis

famed Dunham student, Frances Davis was a hit on Broadway in plays like, "West Side Story", also was married to legendary Jazz musician, Miles Davis.
famed Dunham student, Frances Davis was a hit on Broadway in plays like, "West Side Story", also was married to legendary Jazz musician, Miles Davis.

Ed Brown

Brown studied under Katherine Dunham and went on to perform and tour for over 25 years in musical revues and theater productions.
Brown studied under Katherine Dunham and went on to perform and tour for over 25 years in musical revues and theater productions.

Otis Sallid

Otis Sallid sites Katherine Dunham's influence on his career where he has choreographed for such films as, 'Malcolm X', 'Do The Right Thing', and 'Black Nativity'.
Otis Sallid sites Katherine Dunham's influence on his career where he has choreographed for such films as, 'Malcolm X', 'Do The Right Thing', and 'Black Nativity'. | Source

Otis Sallid Chroeography Reel

Beyond The Dance

Katherine Dunham once said of the power of dance, "We Dance Because We Must."
Katherine Dunham once said of the power of dance, "We Dance Because We Must."

Katherine Dunham: My Love for Dance

A Spiritual Circle?

Ironically, Misty Copeland, the first African American ballet dancer for American Ballet Theatre, is from the same state that Katherine Dunham called home, Missouri. Misty  embodies the spirit that made Katherine Dunham the icon she is today.
Ironically, Misty Copeland, the first African American ballet dancer for American Ballet Theatre, is from the same state that Katherine Dunham called home, Missouri. Misty embodies the spirit that made Katherine Dunham the icon she is today. | Source

Misty Copeland Stunning Dancing

Katherine Dunham Museum

This landmark is housed in Dunham's beloved hometown of East St. Louis, MO.
This landmark is housed in Dunham's beloved hometown of East St. Louis, MO.

Her Legacy Will Live On

Katherine Dunham's desire was that young people will always remember who they are through dance and education.  She is gone now, but her legacy and works live on.  Katherine Dunham:  Born: June 22, 1909, Glen Ellyn, IL Died: May 21, 2006, New York,
Katherine Dunham's desire was that young people will always remember who they are through dance and education. She is gone now, but her legacy and works live on. Katherine Dunham: Born: June 22, 1909, Glen Ellyn, IL Died: May 21, 2006, New York,

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    • Pam Morris profile image

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