Katherine Dunham Helped Teach the World to Dance
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
When Alvin Ailey was 15-years old he went to see Katherine Dunham and her dance company perform. In his autobiography he described the experience as transcendent and called Dunham an unbelievable creature. Alvin Ailey went on to study with Dunham, as did Jerome Robbins and many other dancers and choreographers. She introduced them to African and Caribbean movement. And her dance company was a staple of Hollywood, Broadway and theaters around the world for more than 30 years. Katherine Dunham died this week at the age of 96. Reporter Jim Dryden interviewed her many times and has this remembrance.
JIM DRYDEN reporting:
Katherine Dunham was more than a dancer, choreographer and teacher. She was also an anthropologist. Dunham studied at the University of Chicago, and as a student made her first research trips to Haiti, a country that eventually became her adopted home. While she studied anthropology, Dunham was also dancing. And in 1936 when she formed her company she put the two together.
Ms. KATHERINE DUNHAM (Dancer): I draw on what I have known and seen and felt in other places. And most of it has to do with my interests in form and function. I think if the function that you want to present in your piece of choreography has to do with a certain thing like preparation for war, or love, or whatever you will, then I've re-digested for, for theatre and for the stage.
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DRYDEN: Such Dunham works as Rites du Passage and Shango were based almost entirely on traditional dances. In Rites du Passage she follows a village threw rites of circumcision, marriage, fertility and other ceremonies she'd observed in her travels. But Dunham said she wasn't interested in turning the stage into a museum.
DUNHAM: I was struck by the fact that in our society we don't pay any attention to the rites passage of people. You know, you have birth, mating, marriage, death, those things are the main things of a primitive society would take care of. So I did Rites du Passage in a way to show what a simpler culture would do, how they would handle these crises in the life of a person. And I think behind it I was trying to teach a lesson too. I had a little something about we don't do that and we should. I'm always, always the educator. Rites du Passage, I think, was my big answer to people who felt that primitive things were always just without form and without discipline.
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DRYDEN: Discipline was key to Katherine Dunham's artistic mission. She spent much of her career disputing the idea that African Americans were somehow natural performers. She trained her modern dancers as rigorously as any ballet mistress. And her company helped make audiences and critics take African and Caribbean dance seriously as artforms. On top of that, says dance writer and historian Adam Pinsker, Dunham annotated her traditionally inspired work and her jazz choreography, efforts that greatly assisted later generations of dancers.
Mr. ADAM PINSKER (Dance Writer): She created a great body of work. Her dance was very serious art that at the same time was enormously entertaining. The thing is she did with two different things. If she'd done it only with jazz, she would be remembered forever. But she also did it with Afro American, Afro Caribbean and African dance. And if she'd only done that she would be remembered forever, but she did both of those things. There's just no way you can exaggerate her importance.
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DRYDEN: Some of Dunham's work was captured on film. She was the choreographer and her company provided the dancers for such movies as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.
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DRYDEN: Hollywood gave Dunham her widest audience and provided her company with the cash it needed to continue working, even if movie producers didn't always understand what she did, as happened in the film Pardon my Sarong.
DUNHAM: Because I was a specialist on Haiti, they thought that I would do Tahiti, they got it mixed up. I took it anyway because we needed it very badly for the maintenance of the company.
DRYDEN: When the Dunham dancers began performing in the 1930s, you could count the female African American dance company heads on one finger. Dunham was it. But her company toured widely despite sparse financial support and constant problems with discrimination, which she never tolerated. If there was a whites-only section in the theatre, she said she would not perform unless at least one black person was sitting in it.
In the early 1960s, when a bad heart and worse knees forced her to retire from performing, Dunham opened a school in Haiti, where she lived in winter. In summer she settled in East St. Louis, Illinois, where she also opened a school and a museum containing some of the objects she collected in her travels over the years. Dunham intentionally set up shop in impoverished communities because she felt she could do the most good for people with the fewest opportunities to create their creativity.
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DRYDEN: Today Ruby Street teaches at the Dunham School in East St. Louis. When it opened in 1967, she was Dunham's student.
Ms. RUBY STREET (Dance Instructor): Where else could she go except the place like East St. Louis to see if all of the things that she was working on and thought about really worked? And East St. Louis is all the richer for Ms. Dunham having been here.
DRYDEN: Dunham's East St. Louis school produced such graduates as filmmakers Warren and Reginald Hudlin and Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Ms. JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE (Olympian): I was at Katherine Dunham at the age of nine. I always felt that I was going to go to Broadway as a dancer. It was just so great, the Dunham technique, the different things that you learn from being down at the center. And I think for me Katherine Dunham has always been a hero of mine. She's always in the community. She's always at home. She's always trying to do something.
DRYDEN: As Joyner-Kersee's former teacher got older, Katherine Dunham herself became less concerned with her legacy.
DUNHAM: You can look objectively at what you did along time ago, but you did it, it's over. And if you did it as well as you could, that's that. I am not interested in my past because I know that I did everything possible with what I had on hand at that time.
DRYDEN: Katherine Dunham once said she wanted her epitaph to read, She tried. But at the height of the civil right's movement Dunham decided she wanted that phrase changed to, She did it. Dunham explained that her dancers never proclaimed the phrase black is beautiful to audiences, they simply demonstrated it. For NPR News, I'm Jim Dryden in St. Louis.
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ELLIOTT: That's All Things Considered. From NPR News I'm Debbie Elliott.
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