This Black History Month, BalletMet is celebrating pioneers in the field of dance. Today, we shine the spotlight on Katherine Dunham, a dancer, anthropologist, educator, and humanitarian. Through her creative and academic work, she used dance as a powerful tool for social change.
Katherine Mary Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She lived there until her mother’s death in 1913, when she and her older brother, Albert Jr., moved in with her aunt Lulu on the South Side of Chicago. Her father soon remarried and the whole family relocated to Joliet, Illinois. She began studying dance in high school, learning modern dance rooted in Jacques-Dalcroze’s and Rudolf von Laban’s movement theories (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”). Later, she would move back to Chicago to study ballet under Ludmilla Speranzeva. While training with Speranzeva, she would meet future collaborators Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page (Bernstein).
Katherine admired her older brother greatly. Alfred Jr. went on to pursue a degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Once she was able to attend college in 1929, Katherine initially did the same. However, after only one course, it was clear that philosophy did not suit her. She found her true interest sitting in a lecture of Robert Redfield’s: anthropology. Specifically, anthropology tracing Black American culture through the diaspora back to the continent of Africa (Terkel and Dunham).
When she decided to study anthropology, there was a moment of reconsideration. Would she have to give up dance for academia? Katherine was already balancing both. While still in college, she formed her first company Ballet Nègre with the help of Ruth Page and Mark Turbyfill. One of the first Black ballet companies in America, Ballet Nègre performed once at the 1931 Chicago Beaux Arts Ball before disbanding due to insufficient funding (Bernstein). She then turned her focus to establishing a school for young Black dancers, supported by Speranzeva. In addition to connecting Black dancers with their African heritage, the Negro Dance Group provided the opportunity to temporarily revive Ballet Nègre for the 1934 Chicago World Fair. Katherine was performing through this time as well, guesting with Page’s Chicago Opera and starring in La Guiablesse (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”). Katherine’s mentors, seeing her skill in both fields, encouraged her to synthesize her dance and academic interests. Because of her unique skillset, she was able to use dance as both a tool for inquiry and an object of study.
This synthesis paid off quite soon. Her Chicago dancing led to a key academic opportunity. One night, Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald sat down to view a Dunham performance. Her interest was piqued. It was Mrs. Rosenwald who then awarded Katherine the Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship that funded her first tour of the Caribbean—the journey that would spark her professional trajectory (“About Miss Dunham”).
After briefly studying with Melville J. Herskovits of Northwestern University, Katherine set off in 1936 to study Africanist* dance in the Caribbean. She visited Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti, where she stayed for nine months (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”). It was in Haiti that she first experienced the danced religion Vaudun. She would continue growing in Vaudun throughout her life, becoming something of a priestess (Terkel and Dunham). In these nine months, Katherine immersed herself in the local community, learning the dances, living the culture, and connecting with the people (Risner). She presented her research that summer through a mix of dancing, drumming, and speaking, and was awarded a Ph. B. (Bachelor’s of Philosophy) from University of Chicago in August 1936. This would be the first of three degrees she received from UChicago (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”).
After receiving her degree, Katherine settled in New York. She founded another company in 1937, teaching them techniques that she synthesized from her ballet, modern, and Afro-Caribbean training. This technical fusion would later be codified and named the Dunham technique (Osumare). With this company, she presented her 1938 full-length ballet at Chicago’s Federal Theater, L’Ag’Ya. L’Ag’Ya brought the Martinican fighting form ag’ya to the concert stage, transplanting the movement into a new context to tell a story of love, jealousy, and magic (“L’Ag’Ya”). Her use of Afro-Caribbean techniques was quite intentional:
“The techniques that I knew, and saw, and experienced, were not saying the things that I wanted to say. I simply could not, with purely classical ballet, say what I wanted to say. I could do a story, of course[…] So much ballet is a narrative, but to capture the meaning and the culture and the life of the people, I felt that I had to take something directly from the people and develop that,” (Katherine Dunham on need for Dunham Technique).
She continued to use these techniques in her choreographic works, using her regional knowledge of the African diaspora to “show a people’s culture” (Osumare). Her work quickly garnered praise, noted for its athleticism, theatricality, and sensuality. She and her company toured extensively from 1938-1965, reaching six continents and becoming one of the rare internationally-recognized American dance companies (Osumare). Many of these tours were managed by the impresario Sol Hurok. He even insured Katherine’s legs for $250,000. Although the Dunham Company disbanded in 1960, members from the company (like Talley Beatty) would reassemble for pickup works in later years. These works would premiere at theaters and universities across the world. While choreographing for the company, Katherine was also active in film and on Broadway, even collaborating with George Balanchine on the 1940 Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”).
Audiences and critics had never seen dance like Katherine’s presented in these respected venues. Africanist dance was often restricted to vaudeville theaters at the time. This “newness” was part of the appeal of her work. However, despite the critics’ praise, Katherine and the dancers faced racism every day. Theaters would refuse to desegregate their seats—so Katherine would refuse to return with her company. In one performance, she even hung a sign saying “WHITES ONLY” across her bottom to protest her audience’s racism (Dunning). She would often deal directly with racism in her choreography as well. Her 1951 Southland, premiering in Santiago, Chile, focused on the lynching of a falsely-accused Black man. Southland caused much controversy for the plot and the choreographed use of a racial slur. She was pressured to pull the piece from shows for presenting America negatively to foreign audiences (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”).
Katherine took action against racism offstage, too. She was charged with disorderly conduct in 1967 for confronting the police about the unjust imprisonment of a student of hers (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”). In 1992, she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the treatment of Haitian refugees by the US government. One of her biggest projects, the Performing Arts Training Center of East St. Louis, Illinois, was created in 1967 to directly address the needs of the economically-depressed Black neighborhood (“About Miss Dunham”). The PATC provided drumming and dancing classes, creating a space for community building and an alternative to the violence that plagued the area (Terkel and Dunham). It was deeply important to her to offer opportunities for people to develop their sense of humanity through art—in her own words, “there is nothing stronger in a man than the need to grow” (qtd. in Dunning).
As for the Caribbean, she periodically returned throughout her career. In 1949 she bought a Haitian home with her husband John Pratt and newly-adopted daughter Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”). They started a medical clinic in Port-au-Prince, bridging the distrust between Haitian herbal medicine practitioners and Western scientific medicine, while Katherine continued her study of the Vaudun religon. Although she was trusted by the community, other outsiders were not. The clinic closed when she left Haiti because community members refused to be treated by the non-local nurses (Terkel and Dunham).
She also spent a period of time in Senegal. Katherine was invited to train the National Ballet of Senegal by the president, Léopold Senghor, in 1966. He also appointed her the advisor for the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. For this work, the U.S. State Department named her the U.S. representative to the Dakar festival. She spent two years in Senegal teaching and writing (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”).
Through all her work, the most important thing to Dunham was, “not the investigation and recording of field material […] but rather some practical tangible evidence of its use and translation” (qtd. in Risner). Katherine accomplished this not only through the embodied performance of her research but also through establishing schools and educational opportunities. In 1944, Dunham created the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in New York. It was renamed to the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research in 1946, and finally to the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts in 1952 (“Katherine Dunham Timeline”). This school trained dancers in Dunham technique, the challenging blend of cultures and techniques that Katherine synthesized from her travels and experiences. The school also included courses in anthropology, psychology, dance history, and Caribbean folklore. On tour, she would leave new schools in her wake (Risner). She also taught in universities, first as an artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University from 1964 and later as an artist-in-residence at the University of Hawaii in 1994. This educational work (including the PATC in East St. Louis) created a space to engage with and learn about various cultures.
This cross-cultural work of hers is still relevant today. What is especially relevant are her efforts towards legitimizing Africanist dance forms in the eyes of mainstream America. She did this by gaining expertise in select forms and melding them with her previous training to present Africanist movement in two already-legitimized spaces: on the concert stage and in academic institutions. By putting undervalued movement into valued spaces, she was able to convince those audiences of the movements’ importance (Bernstein). Today, Africanist dance is far more celebrated than it was in the ‘50s. However, the original contexts of these forms are still undervalued. In addition to appreciating Africanist dances on concert stages and in dance studios, we can also increase our understanding through respectful engagement with their home contexts, which can include cyphers, street dance battles, and community movement events like the 63rd Street Beach drum circle of Katherine’s home city Chicago, among others.
Katherine Dunham died on May 21, 2006 in Manhattan, New York at the age of 96. In her life, she published numerous books, won a lengthy list of awards, and choreographed an impressive repertory of works. She brought a keen intelligence and insight to her artistic practice, enabling her to use art as an incredible force for social change. The Katherine Dunham Center for the Arts & Humanities, the Institute for Dunham Technique Certification, her daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt, and her students carry on her legacy today (Osumare).
*African or Africanist?
These two terms are closely related. In this article, African refers to dance forms originating on the continent of Africa. Some examples of African dance are Sabar of the Wolof and Serer people, Zaouli of the Guro people, or Lamban of the Manding people. Africanist is a broader term that also includes dance forms from and influenced by the African diaspora—the regions where African enslaved peoples were kidnapped to and, over the years, formed new communities and cultures. Africanist dance can refer to house, Krump, jazz, cumbia, capoeira, and many more.
Terminology is not always standardized, especially in the arts. Different dancers and scholars may use these terms in different ways. The dance world now is having more frequent conversations around the nuanced cultural impacts of colonialism than before. People are still working out how to best articulate their respective ideas. There will be some tripping over words in the process, but we are all doing our best.
“About Miss Dunham.” Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities, https://www.kdcah.org/about-miss-dunham.
Bernstein, Adam. “Dancer Katherine Dunham.” The Washington Post, 23 May 2006, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2006/05/23/dancer-katherine-dunham/bdd7b8a4-3bd3-4f64-8df9-e66a5d5e02d6/.
Created by Studs Terkel, performance by Katherine Dunham, WFMT, 28 Sept. 1978.
Dunning, Jennifer. “How Katherine Dunham Revealed Black Dance to the World.” The New York Times, 23 May 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/23/arts/dance/23appr.html.
“Katherine Dunham Timeline.” Katherine Dunham Collection, https://www.loc.gov/collections/katherine-dunham/articles-and-essays/katherine-dunham-timeline/.
“L’Ag’Ya.” Katherine Dunham Collection, https://www.loc.gov/collections/katherine-dunham/articles-and-essays/notes-on-dunhams-work/lagya/.
Katherine Dunham on need for Dunham Technique. Video. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003845/>.
Osumare, Halifu. “Katherine Dunham Bio.” Institute for Dunham Technique Certification, Institute for Dunham Technique Certification, https://www.dunhamcertification.org/katherine-dunham-bio.
Risner, Vicky J. Katherine Dunham: A Life in Dance. Web. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200152685/>.
Studio Iris. Katherine Dunham in a s publicity photograph. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003727/>.
Studio Iris. Katherine Dunham in Rara Tonga, which premiered in. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003769/>.
Twachtman, Phyllis. Katherine Dunham in costume. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200003775/>.
Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance (Chapter 4: LENS/BODY), Stephanie Lee Batiste
Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts, Brenda Dixon Gottschild
Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance, Deidre Sklar
Written by Sara Wagenmaker
This Black History Month we are showcasing the contributions of Black artists in ballet. Today, we highlight Ulysses Dove, a choreographer that bounded across the divides between modern, post-modern, and ballet dance towards the end of the 20th century.
Ulysses was born in Columbia, South Carolina on January 17, 1947. His family moved to east Georgia not long after. Due to his parents’ busy lives—teaching children, leading a church, running an upholstery business—Ulysses spent much of his childhood with his grandfather on a farm. He passed the time with books and conversations, cultivating a curious mind. A brother and sister were born in the following years (Porter).
Church and religion played a key role in Ulysses’ upbringing. Several of his creations focused on religion, perhaps most notably his 1986 work Vespers (originally choreographed for Ohio’s Dayton Contemporary Dance Company). Vespers features six women in chairs, drawing from imagery of his grandmother and her community in worship. As a child, Ulysses attended both Catholic and Presbyterian schools, in addition to being the son of a pastor (Porter).
His parents both heavily disapproved of his dancing. Despite constant pushback from his parents and the nuns at his Catholic elementary school, Ulysses danced whenever and wherever he could. He was put into the Presbyterian Boggs Academy in an effort to curb his dancing, yet he did not stop (Porter). To temporarily appease his parents Ulysses chose to enter Howard University as a pre-medical student. However, thanks to Carolyn Tate’s influence, he quickly changed his focus to dance. He then transferred to the University of Wisconsin to train with Xenia Chlistowa of the Kirov Ballet before transferring once more to Bennington College, where he graduated in 1970 (DeFrantz 10).
Upon graduation he moved to New York City. While training on scholarship with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he danced with Mary Anthony, Pearl Lang, and Anna Sokolow, unafraid to pursue whichever dances caught his interest. After years of persevering through parental disapproval, navigating New York’s pressure was easy. On seeing a performance of Cunningham’s Red Forest, Ulysses said to himself: “I want to dance that piece.” So he did. And, after a successful three years with Merce’s company, Ulysses sat in the audience of Alvin Ailey’s Love Songs and said to himself: “I want to dance that piece.” So he did (Harris). He joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1973 and continued with the repertory company until 1980. In his performing career, he gained notice for his clarity, intensity, and strong presence onstage, although outside of the studio he was often described as a rather soft-spoken man (DeFrantz 10, Dunning).
It was Ailey who first pushed Ulysses to choreograph, commissioning I See the Moon . . . and the Moon Sees Me in 1979 (Cannon). In 1980, he created the solo Inside for Judith Jamison. These works began a monumental choreographic career. Ulysses soon joined the Groupe de Recherche Chorégraphique de l’Opéra de Paris (GRCOP) as its Assistant Director. GRCOP was founded in 1981 by Jacques Garnier with dancers from the Paris Opera. Throughout the GRCOP’s eight years of existence, it pushed to establish a French repertory of contemporary dance and support the creation of new contemporary dance (“Introduction”). Ulysses taught company class and choreographed during his three-year tenure. He left in 1973 to focus on freelancing (DeFrantz 10).
Although already in high demand by Europe and soon in high demand by America, Ulysses was quite particular about where he made work. In his own words: “I don’t want to be the blue-plate special of the month. I don’t want every company in the world to have a Ulysses Dove ballet. Besides, I’m not easy to work with, because I want a lot” (Harris).
His choreography is indeed known for being extremely challenging. He was as particular in his choice of work as he was exacting in his choreographic process. Dancers described him as “an intense and demanding taskmaster who expected his dancers to give everything they had, tirelessly, even in rehearsal” (Dunning). Judith Jamison said in a 1989 interview with the New York Times, “He choreographed one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever done…His choreography pulls you in and keeps you in and then leaves you limp” (Harris).
Critics and dance historians have assigned the precision of Cunningham, the drive of Pearl Lang, and the athleticism of Ailey to his work. While his professional experiences and mentors doubtless influenced his artistic choices, Ulysses’ work speaks beyond his resume. Ulysses made dance with an eye for “pure movement that expresses pure emotion.” He was “not trying to get across a meaning. [He was] trying to get across an experience” (Harris). In order to accomplish this, he created choreographic opportunities for “what the dancers can’t control—things inside of them that get out and that they can’t hold back” to emerge onstage. For Ulysses Dove, the present moment was essential: “I don’t want to see any choreography. I don’t want to have the feeling that what you’re showing people is the end result. It has to be alive right now” (Harris).
Ulysses choreographed for an impressive list of companies throughout his career, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Ballet, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, the Basel Ballet, the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden, the Ballet France de Nancy, the Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Nuevo Mundo de Caracas, the Swedish National Ballet, and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. He also choreographed the 1986 Robert Wilson-Philip Glass opera “The Civil Wars”. His work was the focus of Dance in America: Two by Dove (1995), part of Margaret Selby’s Emmy Award-winning TV series Great Performances. Other key works include Night Shade, Bad Blood, Vespers, Episodes, Serious Pleasures, Dancing On the Porch of Heaven, Red Angels (performed by BalletMet dancers in 2019), and his final piece, Twilight.
Ulysses Dove was the first Black choreographer that many of those companies had ever hired. His presence opened the door for future Black dancers and choreographers to enter the field. The dance world of 2023 is vastly different from the dance world of the 1980s and 1990 in regards to racial equality, yet much progress remains to be made.
Ulysses Dove had a rare determination and gift for dance. His death of AIDS in 1996 was a true loss. He was first diagnosed with HIV in 1982 but did not publicize it due to the stigma around the disease. His brother, Alfred Dove, now administers his estate, reconstructing his works on various companies and maintaining his legacy (Porter). In 2019 BalletMet had the opportunity to perform Red Angels and speak with Alfred about the ballet – watch here. Alfred’s work keeps Ulysses’ voice alive, continuing to inspire dancers even today.
Keep an eye out for more insight from Alfred Dove on the importance of mentorship and finding shared humanity, and next season, a classic Dove work making a BalletMet premiere.
Written by Sara Wagenmaker
Cannon, Michaela. “Muscle Memory: The Choreography of Ulysses Dove Lives on in New Orleans.” The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Endowment for the Humanities, Sept. 2008, https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2008/septemberoctober/feature/muscle-memory.
DeFrantz, Thomas F. “African American Dance – Philosophy, Aesthetics, and ‘Beauty.’” Topoi, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 2005, pp. 93–102., https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-004-4165-7.
Dunning, Jennifer. “Ulysses Dove, Creator of Dark, Driving Dances, Dies at 49.” The New York Times, 12 June 1996, p. 23, https://www.nytimes.com/1996/06/12/arts/ulysses-dove-creator-of-dark-driving-dances-dies-at-49.html.
Harris, William. “Ulysses Dove: Choreography From Life.” The New York Times, 3 Dec. 1989, p. 32, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/03/arts/ulysses-dove-choreography-from-life.html.
“Introduction.” Du Tutu à L’académique, De La Posture Classique à La Revendication Néo-Classique, Centre National De La Danse, http://mediatheque.cnd.fr/spip.php?page=du-tutu-a-l-academique-de-la-posture-classique-article&id_article=1304.
Porter, Juan Michael. “Honoring Ulysses Dove, 25 Years after His Death from HIV – Thebody.” TheBody, Remedy Health Media, LLC, 11 June 2021, https://www.thebody.com/article/ulysses-dove-25-years-after-death-hiv.