Tribute to Dunham

Ballet Creole’s founder, Patrick Parson, continues to draw his inspiration from internationally renowned dancer/choreographer Katherine Dunham.

Dunham’s anthropological studies in Africa and the Caribbean yielded a dance technique that draws from classical ballet as well as traditional African/Caribbean movement, forging a cultural link between Africa and North America.

Tribute to Katherine Dunham
(22 June 1909-21 May 2006)

Dancer Katherine Dunham Dies at Age 96

Dunham passed on Sunday at the Manhattan assisted living facility where she lived, said Charlotte Ottley, executive liaison for the organization that preserves her artistic estate.

Dunham was perhaps best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences to the European-dominated dance world. In the late 1930s, she established the nation's first self-supporting all-Black modern dance group.

Her dance company toured internationally from the 1940s to the '60s, visiting 57 nations on six continents. Her success was won in the face of widespread discrimination, a struggle Dunham championed by refusing to perform at segregated theaters.

For her endeavours, Dunham received 10 honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize at the Kennedy Center Honors, and membership in the French Legion of Honor, as well as major honors from Brazil and Haiti.

“We weren’t pushing ‘Black is Beautiful,’
we just showed it.”

After 1967, Dunham lived most of each year in predominantly Black East St. Louis, Ill., where she struggled to bring the arts to a Mississippi River city of burned-out buildings and high crime.

She set up an eclectic compound of artists from around the globe, including Harry Belafonte. Among the free classes offered were dance, African hair braiding and woodcarving, conversational Creole, Spanish, French and Swahili and more traditional subjects such as aesthetics and social science.

Dunham also offered martial arts training in hopes of getting young, angry males off the street. Her purpose she said was to steer the residents of East St. Louis “into something more constructive than genocide.”

Government cuts and a lack of private funding forced her to scale back her programs in the 1980s. Despite a constant battle to pay bills, Dunham continued to operate a children’s dance workshop and a museum.

Plagued by arthritis and poverty in the latter part of her life, Dunham made headlines in 1962 when she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U.S. policy that repatriated Haitian refugees.

“It’s embarrassing to be an American,” Dunham said at the time.

Dancers Honor Katherine Dunham

By Doug Moore

Had Katherine Dunham been at the tributes in her honor Thursday, she would have marvelled at the spectacle of it all. But in her famous controlling way, she probably would have had to tweak the efforts a bit.

With a wave of her hand, an assistant would come running. She would whisper in his ear. He would turn and say: Shut up and dance already.

For it’s dance – not speeches- that defined Dunham and made her famous. It was her audacity to take traditional dance moves and combine them with the tribal rhythms she encountered in her world travels as an anthropologist, specifically in the Caribbean and Africa, and redefine a craft that cannot be mentioned without her name attached.

She took those moves to film, the Broadway stage, and to dance classes around the globe, creating the Dunham Technique, as it has been labelled. That technique is still being taught today, including this weekend in East St. Louis.

This year, though, Dunham will not be there as she has been the past two decades, watching to make sure that the jumps are high enough, the turns tight enough, the emotion strong enough.

Dunham died May 21 in her New York City apartment. The cause of death has not been made public. Thursday would have been her 97th birthday.

The first tribute on Thursday took place in East St. Louis, her adopted home since 1967, although she had been living in New York for seven years. She attempted to move back to East St. Louis last fall, but ran out of money and went back to her assisted-living facility on the Upper West Side that friends were helping fund. A second tribute was held at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

As with most Dunham tributes – and there have been dozens during her life – sweat is plentiful. The bold, forceful movements of the dance and the aggressive beating of drums leave all the performers drenched. At Thursday’s tributes, the sweat was there as drummers and dancers honoured her. But so were tears. Her daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, struggled to talk about her mother without crying, giving her first local interview since her mother’s death.

Dunham told her daughter she would have written on her tomb: “She tried.”

Dunham Pratt said she hopes that her mother’s death serves as a way to “wake up” those that are unaware of her mother’s efforts as dancer, choreographer, activist and anthropologist.

“A lot of people have already forgotten her,” she said.

The tributes served as reminders of why Dunham, whose most famous works are now a half-century old, is one of dance’s greatest.

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