Visible Women

The true story of Katherine Dunham, the woman who made black dance mainstream

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we’re paying tribute to American choreographer Katherine Dunham, who revolutionised dancing in the Thirties and Forties by incorporating Afro-Caribbean rhythms and movements. 

Born in 1909 in a Chicago suburb, to a French-Canadian mother and a father who was the descendant of Madagascan and West African slaves, Katherine Dunham began dancing at high school. It wasn’t until she was studying anthropology at Chicago University in the mid-Thirties, however, that she set up her first troupe – one of the first all-black companies in America.

She brought her schooling in anthropology to the dance studio – her field studies of native dance in Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti inspired her – and created a technique that blended modern dance, ballet and traditional styles from other cultures.

By 1938, Dunham had composed her first full-length ballet, called L’Ag’Ya. Based on a ‘fighting dance’ she had seen while in Martinique, it was performed to great acclaim at the Federal Theatre in Chicago. In the following years her productions were wildly popular – the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, as it then became, toured the world until the Sixties, visiting more than 50 countries over the course of three decades. 

Katherine Dunham photographed in 1950 

In 1945, Dunham opened and directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre near Times Square in New York. A generation of stars received tuition there, including James Dean, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty and Marlon Brando (plus jazz legend Charles Mingus held regular jam sessions with the drummers).

At the same time, Dunham became a Hollywood fixture, dancing in and choreographing films such as Carnival Of Rhythm (1941), Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stormy Weather (1943), among others.

Dunham remained a passionate teacher and activist all her life – in 1992 at the age of 82 she made headlines when she initiated a 47-day fast to protest against the US deportation of Haitian refugees. She died in 2006, just a month before her 97th birthday.

Dunham’s dance company in New York in 1987

Dunham was the first person to bring black heritage in dance to the popular stage, creating an all-black troupe at a time when segregation and racial discrimination was still the norm. Her narrative style of choreography didn’t shy away from important topics; one even included a lynching. Travelling around the US, she fought racism as she went. “We weren’t pushing ‘black is beautiful’, we just showed it,” she later said.

Dunham’s blending of different dance forms, her intercultural connections and her inclusion of Caribbean and African styles truly revolutionised modern dance. Many of the next generation of important choreographers got their training as part of Dunham’s company and the Dunham Technique is still being widely taught at dance schools all over the world.

Dunham’s ideas spread out far beyond modern dance and ballet, though, helping to inspire hip hop and street dance styles still thriving today.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Main illustration: Josie Jammet. Other images: Getty Images