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Katherine Dunham

The Magic of Katherine Dunham

Performer, anthropologist, choreographer, director, producer, author, essayist, educator, and humanist Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago. She studied dance with Ludmila Speranzeva and Vera Mirova. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Chicago, which later would prove so valuable in her construction of a technique and dance theatre based on primitive rhythms.

During her early career as a dancer and choreographer, Miss Dunham founded the Ballet Nègre in Chicago in 1931 and the Negro Dance Group in 1937. She was director of the Writers Project and subsequently Dance Director for the WPA Federal Theatre Project in Chicago. In 1938, she collaborated with well-known costume and set designer John Pratt (whom she later married) on L'Ag'Ya, a dance based on the folklore of Martinique.

The range of her accomplishments is far-reaching: in 1939, she opened at the Windsor Theatre in New York for one performance of Tropics and le Jazz Hot and stayed for thirteen weeks. Later, she created the dramatic role of Georgia Brown for the Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky. In Hollywood, she made such films as Star Spangled Rhythm, Stormy Weather and Pardon My Sarong. She produced the musicals Tropical Revue, Carib Song, and Bal Nègre in New York, and Deux Anges Sont Venus in Paris. For over thirty years, Dunham maintained the only permanently self-subsidized dance troupe in America. She has also published books, articles and has recorded music in Mexico, Paris, and New York.

Early on, Dunham understood her responsibility to future generations of dancers and established a school in New York in 1943. For many years, she divided her time between the Habitation Leclerc in Haiti, and East St. Louis, Illinois, where she formed a Performing Arts Training Center while she was a professor at Southern Illinois University. Dunham was honored for her achievements with many awards and 14 honorary doctoral degrees. She died in 2006 at age 96.