Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham, Legendary dancer, choreographer and anthropologist, Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago, to an African American father and a French Canadian mother.

She sang in her local Methodist Church in Joliet; but for a financial crisis at her church, she might never have sung anything but gospel songs.

Katherine Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930’s by going to the roots of black dance and rituals transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all.

She was a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She showed the world that African American heritage is beautiful.

She completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline.

She is credited for bringing these Caribbean and African influences to a European-dominated dance world.

In 1931, Miss Dunham met one of America’s most highly regarded theatrical designers, John Pratt, forming a powerful personal and creative team that lasted until his death in the 1986.

They married in 1949 to adopt their daughter, Marie-Christine, an 18 month-old French child. Dunham choreographed Aida in 1963 at the Met, and continued to secure her place in artistic history by becoming the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera.

She also made several recordings for the Decca label of songs that were in the show. The last time the Dunham Company performed was in 1965 at the Apollo theatre.

In 1965 Miss Dunham was invited to be an Artist in Residence at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

While there she directed a production of Faust and established a dance anthropology program at SIU in Edwardsville.

In 1966, President Leopold Sedar Senghor invited Miss Dunham to come to Dakar for the famous ‘Festival des Arts Nègres’ and to serve as Director of the ‘Ballet National’ and consultant for the year.

The following year, Dunham created “The Performing Arts Training Center” and the Dunham Dynamic Museum in East St. Louis, Illinois.

In 1972 she choreographed and directed Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha at Wolftrap that played in Washington, Atlanta and St. Louis.

Dunham was attached to Haiti, where she had studied as a young anthropologist, focusing her college thesis on Haitian dance.

Dunham felt a kinship with the Haitian people and took their plight on as her own. In 1961, she established a medical clinic there.

By the late 1990s, Dunham was widowed and was living in near destitution near the St. Louis area. Her friends moved her to New York to help provide care for her.

In 1992, at the age of 82, Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the treatment of Haitian boat refugees, who were fleeing their country but were turned back.

She also received a Southern Cross from Brazil and earned national honors in both Haiti and France.

By this time, Dunham was nearly bed-ridden with severe arthritis.

She died on May 21, 2006, in an assisted-living facility in New York City.

She was 96.

She is survived by her daughter.