Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was a multi-talented woman who made a lasting impact on American and European theater of the 20th century. From anthropology to dance, Dunham made a name for herself by breaking barriers.
Upon attending the University of Chicago, Katherine majored in anthropology with a focus on dances of the African diaspora. She studied with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill, and danced her first leading role in Ruth Page’s ballet “La Guiablesse” in 1933.
In 1935 Dunham was awarded travel fellowships from the Julius Rosenwald and the Guggenheim foundations to conduct study of the dance forms of the Caribbean. After returning she realized she had to make a decision between anthropology and dance and chose dance. Dunham opened her first real dance school in 1933 called the Negro Dance Group. From that moment on she led a choreographer life. In 1937 she and her dancers traveled to New York to take part in “A Negro Dance Evening.” The troupe performed a suite of West Indian dances in the first half of the program and a ballet entitled Tropic Death in the second.
Katherine moved her company to NYC in 1939, where she became dance director of the New York Labor Stage, choreographing the labor-union musical “Pins and Needles.” Beginning in the 1940s, the Katherine Dunham Dance Company appeared on Broadway and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe. While dancing was her priority, Kat stood up against segregation and discrimination where ever she went. In São Paulo, Brazil, she brought a discrimination suit against a hotel, eventually prompting the president of Brazil to apologize to her and to pass a law that forbade discrimination in public places.
Katherine was a true pioneer who received awards from the National Dance Association and even a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. She influenced greats like Alvin Ailey to pursue dance and perhaps most importantly, she proved African American women can be skilled in many fields.
Photo Credit: Voice of Dance