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Katherine Dunham: The Remarkable Woman Who Blended 4 Cultural Styles in Her Dance

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Katherine Dunham was an iconic American dancer who told stories by blending African rhythms with classical ballet. She was an anthropologist in fieldwork around Africa, fascinated by her discoveries. 

While blending dance moves from South America, Africa, and the Caribbean, Katherine Dunham opened the door for African Americans and Africans to take turns on the dance stage.

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Below is a detailed account of Katherine Dunham’s life.

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The Early Life of Katherine Dunham

Video source: visionaryproject- YouTube

Born in Chicago in 1909, Ms Dunham first performed in her local church as a singer and dancer. Awed by her academic prowess, she was encouraged to pursue a teaching career, although she wanted to be a singer. 

She would go on to be one of the African Americans to earn a first degree from the University of Chicago in 1929.

Katherine later learned to dance ballet and became interested in the anthropology of African dance. After receiving an anthropology scholarship, Ms Dunham traveled around the Caribbean to investigate African dance.

Besides, she learned about African dance through her research in South and Central America, including Jamaica and Haiti. Katherine investigated the roles, movements, and meaning of these dances, including some rituals such as voodoo

Katherine Dunham’s Life as a Dancer

Video source: visionaryproject- YouTube

After some time, Katherine Dunham began to perform the dances from her anthropology works, fusing contemporary American rhythms. She also created dance moves in her name called the Duhman Technique

Katherine founded a unique African-American dance school that taught the Dunham Technique in 1944. The dance school in New York was named Katherine Dunham Dance School.

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Moreover, her company performed over 90 pieces around the world, and she opened dance and cultural studies schools in Rome, Paris, and Stockholm. Katherine is recognized for her commitment to developing pedagogies for teaching dancing. The Matriarch of Black Dance is an innovative combination of American, African, and Caribbean culture, which Katherine shared with the world with her dance troupe.

For over two decades, she traveled the world with her troupe, performing in 57 countries, including Batucada, L’ag’ya, Shango, Veracruzana, Nanigo, Choros, Rite of Passage, Los Indios, and many others.

She authored various articles and books, including: 

  • Journey to Accompong (1946)
  •  Las Danzas de Haiti, (1947)
  • Les Danses d’Haiti(1957)
  • The coffee table book of Dances of Haiti (1983)
  • A Touch of Innocence (1959) 
  • An autobiography of her childhood
  • Island Possessed (1969)
  • Kasamance 
  • An African fable (1974)
Video source: Supasum32- YouTube

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Katherine Dunham was an incredible woman who along with her anthropology and dance, advocated for equality and against racial segregation. She died peacefully in 2006, exactly a month before her 97th birthday. 

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Sedi Djentuh
Sedi Djentuh
Hey, Sedi here, a content writer. She's fascinated by the interplay between people, lifestyle, relationships, tech and communication dedicated to empowering and spreading positive messages about humanity. She's an avid reader and a student of personal weekly workouts. When she's not writing, Sedi is busy advocating for plastic-free earth with her local NGO.


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