Katherine Dunham, one of the nation’s most influential choreographers, and a devoted activist for all people of African heritage, was bom in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She lost her mother when she was only three, and she and her brother were moved to South Chicago, where they stayed with an aunt while their father traveled as a salesman. Their father regained custody when Katherine was five, and the reunited family, with the addition of Annette Poindexter, Katherine’s new stepmother, moved to Joliet, Illinois.
Always active, Katherine took private piano and dance lessons from elementary school on, applying her agility and grace to athletics when she reached high school. She was elected president of the Girls’ Athletic Association before attending Joliet Town¬ ship Junior College, and later, University of Chicago.
There Katherine began to study cultural anthropology with a passion. Pursu¬ ing her education in ethnology and African cultures, she began to mix historical tradition with her creative approach to dance. Form-ing Ballet Negre with dancers Ruth Page and Mark Turbyfill, Katherine launched a career as one of the finest choreographers in Amer¬ ica.
Negro Rhapsody, their debut perfor¬ mance at the Beaux Arts Ball in 1931, estab¬ lished Katherine as an expert on African dance styles, and she was chosen in 1933 to handpick 150 young dancers to perform a piece of her own design at the Chicago Cen¬ tury of Progress Exposition.
Dunham’s work was filling a void in American dance that had never been explored before. Granted the Rosenwald Travel Fellowship in 1935, she went to Jamaica, Martinique, and Haiti to further study the origins of the Caribbean styles that formed the basis of her own original pieces.
She graduated from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a degree in anthropol¬ ogy, and moved to Northwestern University, where she completed her doctorate under Melville Herskovitz, an anthropology expert who was also one of the first essayists of the Harlem Renaissance (see no. 36).
Dunham’s Ballet Negre grew into the Negro Dance Group and toured over 60 countries, bringing traditional African ritual to differ¬ ent nationalities in the form of Caribbean- inspired dance. Her choreographed pieces include Ballet Fedre (1938), Tropics and Le Jazz Hot (1940), Tropical Review (1943), Bal Negre (1946), Caribbean Rhapsody (1950), and Bamboche (1962).
Document¬ ing the history of African descended cul¬ tures, Dunham wrote Journey to Accom- pong (1946), Les Danses d’Haiti (1950), and A Touch ofInnocence (1959).After retiring from the stage in the 1960s, Dunham founded the Katherine Dunham Center, where she trains young people in African dance and culture.
Always a sup¬ porter of African-inspired cultures, Dunham went on a hunger strike in 1992 in support of fleeing Haitians who weren’t granted asy¬ lum by the Bush Administration.