Katherine Dunham

KathrineDunham_MatureKatherine Dunham

(June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006)

“What Dunham gave modern dance was a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement — a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving — which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance.”

Katherine Dunham was born in 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and raised in Joliet, Illinois.  Noted for her work as a pioneering dancer and choreographer, Miss Dunham has made an indelible mark on American history as an anthropologist, educator, author, performer, director producer and activist.

Her passion for dance began as a youth in Joliet, but it was the vibrant cultural climate of the 1920s in Chicago that beckoned Miss Dunham and fueled her development in the arts and social sciences.  She attended the University of Chicago, majored in anthropology and studied dance with Ludmilla Speranzeva, Vera Mirova, Mark Turbyfill and Adolph Bolm.

During her early career as a dancer and choreographer, Miss Dunham founded the Ballet Negre in Chicago in 1931 and the Negro Dance Group in 1937.  While at the University of Chicago, she was director of the Writers Project and subsequently Dance Director for the WPA Federal Project in Chicago. In 1938, she collaborated with well-known costume and set designer John Pratt on “L’Ag’Ya”, a dance drama based on the folklore of Martinique.  Mr. Pratt later became her husband and was the designer of costumes and stage décor for the acclaimed Dunham Company. The couple had one daughter, Marie-Christine.


Artists and intellectuals all over the world have lauded the beauty, warmth of spirit, and the artistry of Katherine Dunham.  Her accomplishments are wide-ranging: in 1939 she opened at the Windsor Theatre in New York City for a one-night performance of “Tropics” and “Le Jazz Hot”; the show subsequently ran for 13 weeks. Later, she created the dramatic role of Georgia Brown for the Broadway production of “Cabin in the Sky”. In Hollywood, she made such films as “Stormy Weather”, “Pardon My Sarong” and ”Star Spangled Rhythm”, which has the distinction of being the first short film made in Technicolor for Warner Brothers. She produced the musicals “Tropical Revue”, “Carib Song” and “Bal Negre” in New York, and choreographed “Deux Anges Sont Venus” in Paris and “Aïda” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.


For over 30 years, Katherine Dunham maintained the only permanently self-subsidized dance troupe in America, keeping the company going with nightclub engagements, Hollywood Bowl appearances, literary writings and concert touring in 57 countries in Europe, Australia, Asia and South America.  Miss Dunham published books, articles and recorded music in Mexico, Paris and New York.  In 1943, Miss Dunham established a base philosophy for a school, which opened in 1946 in New York City as the Dunham School of Arts and Research.  The school offered studies in performing arts, applied skills, anthropology, languages, humanities, percussion, philosophy, costume design, theater make-up and Caribbean research.


“I used to want the words ’She tried’ on my tombstone. 

Now I want ‘She did it’”.  –Katherine Dunham


Source Citation:  Sally Sommer, Biographical Reference (Free to Dance)