Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham
Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

Often referred to as the "matriarch of black dance," Katherine Dunham helped to establish black dance as an art form in America. Her dance company helped to pave the way for future famous dance theatres.

Early Life of Katherine Dunham

Katherine Mary Dunham was born on June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Her African-American father was a tailor and owned his own dry-cleaning business. Her mother, a school teacher, was twenty years older than her husband. Dunham's life changed drastically at the age of five when her mother became seriously ill and died. Her father was faced with raising Katherine and her older brother, Albert Jr, by himself. Financial obligations soon forced Katherine's father to sell the family home, sell his business, and become a traveling salesman.

Dance Interest

Dunham's dance interest became apparent at an early age. While in high school, she started a private dance school for young black children. When she was 15, she organized a fundraising cabaret for a church in Joliet, Illinois. She called it the "Blue Moon Cafe." It became the location of her first public performance.

After completing junior college, she joined her brother at the University of Chicago, where she studied dance and anthropology. She became interested in learning about the origins of several popular dances including the cake-walk, the Lindy Hop, and the black bottom.

Dance Career

While at the University, Dunham continued taking ​dance classes and began performing at a local playhouse that her brother helped to establish. She met choreographer Ruth Page and ballet dancer Mark Turbyfill at the playhouse, both members of the Chicago Opera Company. The threesome later opened a dance studio together, calling their students the "Ballet Negre," in order to distinguish them as black dancers. The school was eventually forced to close because of financial problems, but Dunham continued to study dance with her teacher, Madame Ludmila Speranzeva. She won her first lead in Page's La Guiablesse in 1933.

Caribbean Influence

After college, Dunham moved to the West Indies to research the roots of her biggest interests, anthropology, and dance. Her work in the Caribbean led to her creation of the Katherine Dunham Technique, a style of dance that involved a loose torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs. Combined with both ballet and modern dance, it became a truly unique form of dance.

Dunham returned to Chicago and organized the Negro Dance Group, a company consisting of black artists dedicated to African-American dance. Her choreography incorporated several of the dances she had learned while away.

Katherine Dunham Dance Company

Dunham moved to New York City in 1939, where she became dance director of the New York Labor Stage. The Katherine Dunham Dance Company appeared on Broadway and began a successful tour. Dunham ran her dance company with no government funding, earning extra money by appearing in several Hollywood movies.

In 1945, Dunham opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in Manhattan. Her school offered classes in dance, drama, performing arts, applied skills, humanities, cultural studies and Caribbean research. In 1947, it was granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts.

Later Years of Katherine Dunham

In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center in St. Louis, a school designed to turn the city's youth toward dance and away from violence. In 1970, Dunham took 43 children from the school to Washington, D.C. to perform at the White House Conference on Children. She also became involved with the First World Festival of Negro Arts, received the Kennedy Center Honors Award in 1983, was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, and was given a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame for the field of Acting and Entertainment. Dunham died in her sleep in New York City on May 21, 2006, at the age of 96.