Recalling Choreographer and Activist Dunham

Dancer, choreographer, and activist Katherine Dunham died Sunday morning at the age of 96. Michele Norris talks with Harry Belafonte about the life and work of Dunham, who brought African and Caribbean influences to the dance world at a time when it was very Euro-centric. Dunham is also remembered for the work she did with poor communities in East St Louis, and for her 47-day hunger strike in 1992 on behalf of Haitian boat people.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The legendary dancer, choreographer and social activist Katherine Dunham has died. She's best remembered for introducing African and Caribbean influences to the dance world and for her work bringing performing arts to the poor. In later years, Dunham herself encountered poverty and relied on the support of friends, among them actor and musician Harry Belafonte.

Mr. HARRY BELAFONTE (Musician): I think what Katherine Dunham brought to America and indeed all of Europe was a sense of the depth of culture that resonated within the world of the peoples of color. Not just Africans and African-Americans and African-Caribbeans, but also the dance and the music of the people of Latin America.

And I think until the advent of her breaking into the world of dance, very little regard had been paid to the art form of the dance for the people from those regions.

NORRIS: When we think about Katherine Dunham, she had legs and arms that seemed to go on forever. And at one point, her legs were insured for a quarter of a million dollars. I want you to do something for me. Could you close your eyes and remember what she looked like on stage and describe that for us. What she looked like when she was in full flight.

Mr. BELAFONTE: Well, I tell you, I wouldn't have to close my eyes, because if I did I'd go into a daydream state. But Dunham, I would not consider Katherine Dunham a woman of enormous capacity as a dancer. But what she did have was the capacity to move within her limitations.

NORRIS: What were those limitations?

Mr. BELAFONTE: A certain largeness in her torso. She did not have a lean body. She had a rather attractive posterior and her bodyline was always graced by the fact that her posterior was rather commanding.

NORRIS: So perhaps she opened the dance world to new possibilities for other women who-

Mr. BELAFONTE: She was, in the whole use of the total technique, the use of African rhythms, the use of counter rhythms, when she trained the body to move to those rhythms, she demanded of the body many things that ballet never required.

And she had great students. I mean students like Jerome Robbins and almost all of the young choreographers of her time. And those who came immediately after her found it absolutely necessary to, in their own development, be familiar with and to apply themselves in the use of Katherine Dunham technique.

NORRIS: At one point she walked away from all that in the 1960s and she moved to East St. Louis, a battered city on the Mississippi River, and tried to introduce children there to art and culture and particularly dance. Why did she decide to set up camp in East St. Louis?

Mr. BELAFONTE: Well she was framed in two ways. One was her deep and powerful commitment to the art and to the arts in general. And she was also very, very committed to the undeserved. So whether it was in East St. Louis or, in fact, the many, many years she spent in Haiti, dealing in the environment of the really oppressed and the very, very poor.

It was in this reason that she brought her art and brought her interests to develop a lot of the young people. She did a lot to not only improve them as artists and as dancers, but she did a lot to improve the communities in which she lived.

Because the Katherine Dunham presence in any community commanded that the community move its own interests and its own behavior to a higher level.

NORRIS: Harry Belafonte, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BELAFONTE: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Harry Belafonte was speaking to us about the legendary dancer Katherine Dunham. She died on Sunday in her sleep at the age of 96.

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