Monday, February 15, 2010

Notable Black Individuals: Katherine Dunham

The University of Chicago and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs continues the celebration of Black Heritage. This week we are featuring Katherine Dunham.

"I always believed that if you set out to be successful, then you already were." Katherine Dunham (June 22, 1909 - May 21, 2006)

Katherine Dunham did not start formal dance until she was 24 years old. Her first leading role was in Ruth Page’s ballet “La Guiablesse” in 1933.

She attended the University of Chicago on scholarship where she was inspired by the work of anthropologists Robert Redfield and Melville Herskovits, who stressed the importance of the survival of African culture and ritual in understanding African-American culture. During her stay at Chicago, Katherine taught youngsters’ dance classes and gave recitals in a Chicago storefront, calling her student company founded in 1931, "Ballet Negre." She was awarded a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship for her combined expertise in dance and anthropology, after graduating with a B.A. in Social Anthropology in 1936. She then departed for the West Indies to do field research in anthropology and dance. Combining her two interests, she linked the function and form of Caribbean dance and ritual to their African progenitors.

Katherine lectured widely, published articles, and wrote books about her observations. She appeared in 9 Hollywood movies and in several foreign films among them Carnival of Rhythm, Star-spangled Rhythm, and Mambo. She choreographed more than 90 individual dances, and produced 5 revues, 4 of which played on Broadway and toured worldwide. Her most critically acclaimed revue was her 1946 “Bal Negre.”

In 1937, she founded the Negro Dance Group and later moved the company to New York City where she became dance director of the New York Labor Stage. Shortly after Ms. Katherine founded the Negro Dance Group, she opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theater (sometimes called the Dunham School of Arts and Research) in Manhattan.

Katherine has received numerous awards acknowledging her contributions. These include the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for a life devoted to performing arts and service to humanity (1979), a Kennedy Center Honor's Award (1983), the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award (1987), and induction into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (1987).

Audacity has characterized Ms. Dunham’s life and career. Her amalgamation of scholarship and theatricality has established indisputably and blissfully, that African-American and African-Caribbean styles are related and potent components of dance in America.