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About Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham had enough talent in her -- as a singer, dancer, director, writer, and producer -- for any three people, and she also managed to work in a significant contribution as a rights activist in a career that started in music and dance and lasted for 60 years. Katherine Mary Dunham was born and raised in Joliet, IL, the daughter of a local small businessman and a school teacher. She sang in her local Methodist Church, and but for a financial crisis at her church, she might never have sung anything but gospel songs. But at age eight, in 1918, she amazed and scandalized the elders of her church by doing a performance of decidedly non-religious songs at a cabaret party, in order to raise money. She also discovered a passion for dance that she pursued growing up, and on entering college had decided upon the goal of becoming a choreographer; officially, however, her major at the University of Chicago was anthropology, and she didn't slight her studies in favor of her passion.

By the 1920s, she'd jumped to Broadway, where she became the principal dancer in a hit show; during this same period, she also presented a lecture to Yale University's Anthropological Club, and also began appearing as a writer in various scientific journals. She founded the Katherine Dunham Dance Group following graduation, and one of the performances was attended by Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald Stern, who was sufficiently impressed to arrange an invitation for Dunham to appear before the Rosenwald Foundation, which offered to finance any study contributing toward her dance career that she cared to name. Thus armed with foundation money, Dunham spent most of the next two years in the Caribbean studying all aspects of dance and the motivations behind dance. Although she traveled throughout the region, including Trinidad and Jamaica, it was in Haiti that she found special personal and artistic resonances.

When she returned to Chicago in 1937, she founded the Negro Dance Group, devoted to African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance. She also worked as a director in the Federal Theater Project, the government-sponsored relief program for artists that also nurtured such talents as Orson Welles and John Houseman. But Dunham's big breakthrough to popular recognition took place after she moved to New York in 1939 and opened that February at the Windsor Theater in a program called Tropics and le Jazz Hot. It was supposed to be a one-night event but demand was such that Dunham ended up doing 13 weeks, and followed this up with her own Tropical Revue, which was a hit not only in the United States but also in Canada. She enjoyed a second hit show with Carib Song in 1945, and followed it up a year later with Bal Negre. She also published her first book, Journey to Accompong, in 1946. Her dance company was a fixture on Broadway throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and she also appeared in several Hollywood films, including Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and Casbah (1948), solo or with her dance company.

Dunham was also popular enough to record for the Decca label during the postwar era, even though the main focus of her work was dance. She also moved into other areas of endeavor, becoming something of a trailblazer anew even as health problems slowed her down. A series of knee injuries curtailed her dancing, and she was forced to disband and re-form her performing group during the late '50s and early '60s, but during this same period she brought Bambouche, a production featuring 14 dancers, singers, and musicians of the Royal Troupe of Morocco, along with the Dunham company, to Broadway, and in 1963 she was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera to choreograph its new production of Verdi's Aida, thus becoming the Met's first black choreographer. Dunham was also politically active on both domestic and international rights issues, and even in her eighties attempted to raise people's consciousness in the United States about issues in Haiti. By that time, she was a living, breathing historical institution in and of herself. She passed away in 2006. ~ Bruce Eder

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