Katherine Dunham, “The Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance”

Our next Dope Queen is Choreographer, Dancer, and Anthropologist Katherine Dunham. She was known for her fusion of African Dance within modern dance and was called “The Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance.”.

Dunham was born June 22 1909 in Chicago, and showed great interest in writing and dance as a child. She learned modern dance in high school, and opened a private dance school for black children. Katherine attended the University of Chicago, studying Ballet, Spanish, East Indian, and Balinese dance forms. Dunham showed great interest in anthropology and decided to focus on dances of the African Diaspora. She was award travel fellowships and traveled to the Caribbean to study different dance forms. While traveling in Haiti she became well versed in Vodun rituals.

In 1931 Dunham formed Ballet Negres, one of the first black dance companies in the United States. She opened her first dance school called Negro Dance Group in in 1933. In 1937 Dunham brought her dance ensemble to New York City. Her pieces were a mix of ballet and West Indian dances, and revolutionary at the time. Dunham received lots of praise for her work, and soon became dance director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. Interest in her company grew, and they booked engagements across the country.

In 1940 the ensemble performed on Broadway in George Balanchine’s Cabin in the Sky, where Dunham played Georgia Brown. They also appeared in films such as Stormy Weather. In 1945 Dunham opened and directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in New York City. The program included courses on dance, performing arts and Caribbean research, and was considered to be one the best learning centers of its type at the time (Eartha Kitt was an alumni). Dunham developed the Dunham Technique, which is taught as a modern dance style to this day. Dunham spent over 20 years touring with her company and teaching anthropology across the world. She retired in 1967 after a final performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. She was a pioneer for showcasing the cultural value on black dance.

aj-katherine-duham
AJ as Katherine Dunham
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