Katherine Dunham

Photo by Studio Iris. Katherine Dunham in a 1960s publicity photograph. Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003727/

African American, Dance, Ethnography, Theater

Katherine Dunham


Katherine Dunham, one of the first dance anthropologists and Black modern dance choreographers, was an accomplished teacher, dance scholar, and folklorist who based her dance technique in an embodied ethnographic research approach to African based dance traditions.

Born in 1909 in Chicago, Illinois to a French-Canadian mother and an African American father, Dunham’s childhood was unsettled for an extended period after her mother died when Dunham was four. Eventually her father remarried and moved the family to Joliet, Illinois. 

After high school and a stint in a local community college, she moved back to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago. While there, she studied with several prominent anthropologists, including Robert Redfield, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and Bronislaw Malinowski. With Julius Rosenwald and Guggenheim travel fellowships, Dunham conducted ethnographic fieldwork throughout the Caribbean to study African roots of Black dance in 1935. Beginning in Jamaica, she conducted fieldwork with Maroons and then researched briefly in Martinique, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago. In Haiti, she studied Vodun rituals and dance movements, and after several return trips, became a mambo in the Vodun religion. These trips inspired her writings, performances, and teaching about traditional forms of African derived dances in the Caribbean throughout her career. After earning a PhB (bachelors) (1936) at University of Chicago, she won a fellowship to study African retentions in Black diasporic dance at Northwestern University with Melville Herskovits. She submitted her MA thesis, “Dances of Haiti:  Their Social Organization, Classification, Form, and Function” in 1938 but did not complete her coursework because she was drawn into professional performance. 

While a student, Katherine Dunham choreographed for the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project and directed fieldwork for the Negro Unit of Illinois Writers Project, in 1930 founded Ballet Négre, one of the first Black ballet companies in the United States, and soon founded her first dance school, the Negro Group, where she began to develop and teach the Dunham dance technique. Based in an embodied ethnographic approach to Afro-diasporic dancing practices, the Dunham technique, increased the visibility and respect for the study of African-based dances and introduced these dances into the Western modern dance world. 

In 1940, she founded the Katherine Dunham Dance Company which toured internationally for almost 30 years with ethnographically based choreography grounded in the traditional dances and cultural practices of the Black Caribbean. 

Later in her career, she founded the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theater in East St. Louis. From 1964 to 1982, Dunham served as an artist in residence at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She was awarded numerous honorary doctorates and in 1989 she received the National Medal of Arts. 

Among her acclaimed works pertinent to folklore are:

Journey to Accompong’ (1946)

Island Possessed (1969)

Allie Martin

(coming soon)