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Posted July 4, 2002

Giant steps

Katherine Dunham has left an imprint on the world of dance, and at 93, the legendary choreographer is finally getting her due.

By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff, 7/3/2002

It wasn't a typical 93d birthday celebration, if there is such a thing. Kudos were sent by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and former president Jimmy Carter. Warm words were spoken by actors Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover. In between, 10 dance performances unspooled on a stage here, showcasing African, Caribbean, and modern dance movements. This is how Jacob's Pillow paid tribute to dance legend Katherine Dunham last week, two days after her June 22 birth date.

As the event tipped over the two-hour mark, a tired Dunham, sitting in her wheelchair, found simple words to capture the warm emotions of the evening: "I love you. You love me. I know it."   

There are plenty of reasons why people should love this pioneer. She's a dancer. An anthropologist. A writer. An activist. The Dunham Technique, still taught to dancers at colleges and at dance companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, combines the African movements she learned while studying religious rituals in the Caribbean with the classic elements of ballets and modern dance. In the 1940s, when African-Americans often found their dance opportunities limited to tap or acrobatics, she formed a dance company and toured the world.

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Katherine Dunham took dance in new directions by combining Caribbean ritual forms of movement with modern and ballet technique. (Globe Staff Photo/Nancy Palmieri)

Dunham enthralled Broadway audiences with her 1940 performance in ''Cabin in the Sky'' and captivated film fans with a dance solo in 1943's ''Stormy Weather.'' Her legs were considered such a treasure that one Broadway producer insured them for $250,000.

She was also political, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences. And in 1951, she choreographed ''Southland,'' a piece about lynching that she performed in Paris and Santiago, Chile, which angered and embarrassed the US government because it aired the country's dark social underside.

Mention Dunham's name today, however, and the response may well be blank stares. She is rarely mentioned alongside other architects of modern dance such as Martha Graham. Some even forgot her activism. When she went on a 47-day fast in 1992 to bring attention to the plight of Haitian refugees, it was a shock to some who thought they knew her.

''People said, `Katherine Dunham - she's never been political,''' says Joyce Aschenbrenner, 71, a former colleague of Dunham's at Southern Illinois University. ''At that time she said, `Well, people don't know me.'''

They're learning, though, as Dunham gets increasing recognition. And it's not just Jacob's Pillow taking notice. Last month, Harvard University awarded her an honorary degree. Aschenbrenner's new biography, ''Katherine Dunham: A Dancing Life,'' out in September, will examine Dunham's cultural and sociological impact. Last year, the Library of Congress received a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Foundation to fund its Katherine Dunham Legacy Project, which is archiving costumes, set designs, and other memorabilia generated by Dunham and her dance company.

''In the same way of Graham, Dunham has received more and more fame partly because she still lives,'' says Julia Foulkes, who mentions Dunham in her upcoming history of dance, ''Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey.''

Ronald K. Brown, a 35-year-old choreographer who continues the Dunham tradition by melding African, hip-hop, and modern dance techniques, says, ''It's sad, but I think it's that fear of losing her that people are all of a sudden saying, `Oh.' It's been the last 10 years where people have been trying to help her out, acknowledge her, find out what she needs, and really pay tribute to her.''

Brown showed his gratitude to Dunham during the Jacob's Pillow tribute with a solo set to Guinean djelidon music that had him kneeling and prostrating himself in front of her. Just as Brown's performance left Dunham nodding in approval, she's also pleased about the belated recognition.

''I don't mind, because it's coming,'' she said months earlier in her apartment in an assisted-living facility on Manhattan's Upper West Side. ''It's happening. Every day I'm feeling more and more true understanding of my work, and that's how such a thing develops.''

Ritual and dance

To get to Dunham's bedroom, visitors must walk down a short hallway that's a photographic gallery of her legendary life. There's a black-and-white picture of a youthful Eartha Kitt dancing in Dunham's company. Another shows Dunham dancing onstage, her legs youthful and sturdy. The hallway empties into the room, where she sits in a bed with those legs - disabled by 13 knee surgeries - covered with an African quilt.

Her arms, fingers, neck, and clothes are covered with an array of silver, gold, amber, pearl, and cobalt jewelry. Nine decades of gravity tugging at her skin has given her body a thick and settled appearance. Her mind is sharp; she recounts decades-old details as if they occurred the previous day.

She talks about the nine months she spent in 1935 traveling to Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Martinique, shooting 16-millimeter images of indigenous dances as a University of Chicago anthropology student. When she returned to the United States, she took the isolated movements of the shoulder, pelvis, and other body parts learned from these Caribbean rituals and made them more palatable by adding ballet and modern technique.

''What I tried to do,'' says Dunham, ''is take the meaning and the feeling and the intensity of the things that were portrayed and prepare them with a well-trained company so that they would convey to the audience the full meaning of that particular ritual or act.''

Dunham was multicultural long before this country even discovered the word. She wanted to educate viewers, not have them be mere observers. Her influence is still evident today, says Foulkes: ''Ailey, then Bill T. Jones, then Ron Brown. It's just very clear that these people [who] have garnered so much and have pushed modern dance into new insights and new possibilities are doing the same kind of bridgework that Dunham started in the 1930s.''

The woman herself is a commanding, regal presence.

''At first I was kind of scared of her,'' says Aschenbrenner, who met Dunham in 1970. ''She's a very charismatic figure. I was afraid I'd make a wrong step.''

Julie Belafonte, the wife of Harry Belafonte and a former member of Dunham's dance company, says, ''I think she projects about 2 feet of intense air around her.''

Dance education

That intensity hasn't protected Dunham from her share of indignities. A New York Times critic writing about her sensuous 1940 juke-joint dance ''Barrel House Blues'' called it ''an incredible vulgarity.'' At the Jacob's Pillow tribute, the audience's appreciation of Cleo Parker Robinson's charismatic performance of the same piece showed how far the dance world has come in accepting work rooted in the African diaspora.

Some say Dunham was never given credit for collaborating on the choreography for the exuberant musical ''Cabin in the Sky,'' which was largely recognized as a George Balanchine work at the time. Over the course of almost two decades, Foulkes says, Dunham's dance company never received the government funding or patronage that white companies did.

''It had to do with being black and a woman,'' says Julie Belafonte flatly.

By 1967, Dunham and her husband, John Pratt, who created the dance company's costumes and set designs, had abandoned touring and moved to gritty East St. Louis. There, Dunham taught at Southern Illinois University and in the 1970s opened the Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, where she taught Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner and the filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin. In 1994, disturbing newspaper stories began appearing about Dunham. She was living in a run-down brick house, bedridden with arthritis, recurrent malaria, and chronic hepatitis, and she was unable to pay her bills.

The Belafontes came to her aid, bringing her back to New York for what was at first a temporary stay. They ''have a small group of people that literally sees that I'm taken care of,'' says Dunham.

Her days are now punctuated by daily visits from her assistant, Madeline Preston, a former Dunham dancer who schedules Dunham's busy life. In the afternoons, Dunham's goddaughter, 4-year-old Rose Michele, drops by. She is the daughter of a Haitian nurse who has cared for Dunham. On this day the little girl creeps into the room, slowly takes off her tiny white sneakers, then clambers onto the bed, where she luxuriates in Dunham's embrace.

Her husband died in 1986. Pratt's death ''was devastating, but at the same time she continues,'' says Jeanelle Stovall, associate director of the Dunham Centers. ''She holds a lot within her.''

But Dunham has a mission to spread the gospel of the Dunham Technique. That's the fuel that keeps her going. She'll travel to East St. Louis this week for the 19th International Dance Technique Seminar that runs through July 21. Then it's off to Ghana for another seminar in September. Next it's back to New York, the city Dunham now considers her permanent home, where she can consider the project requests that continue to pour in.

''This is where I feel I have something to offer,'' says the ever-optimistic woman who speaks of one day getting out of her wheelchair and walking. ''I'm developing more every day.''

Vanessa Jones can be reached at

This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 7/3/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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