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.
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.
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.