Black history month is more than just the African American pioneers that we heard about in grade school, it extends deep into our roots. It dates decades back to the jungles of South America to the empires in Africa. It is more than just the scholars and ambassadors of the 1960’s. Please don’t forget about the renaissance movement and the artists of the past. In lieu of Black History Month and the devastation in Haiti, I would like to take you back and give you a history lesson about the times when Haiti was a nation of great pride, evanescence and they were praised for their arts and culture. Further, I would like to give you a lesson about my second passion in life (which is dance) and the founding mother of the “black” modern dance.
Too often we forget to acknowledge the art of dance and its role in black culture. In particular, the genres of ballet and modern dance are invisible to black people, because many people don’t know about the black trailblazers in this technique. Kathrine Dunham has been called the “Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance.” Born in 1909, Dunham is credited as more than just a dancer, she was a ethno-choreographer, an actress, singer, and most importantly and anthropologist and a activist.
Her career began in the 1920’s as she studied anthropology at the University of Chicago. With this, she bridged her passion of studying cultures and dance together and decided to go to the island of Haiti to conduct field research for her thesis. While there, she indulged herself into the culture and learned the most sacred rituals and dances of the country. Under the influences of the Vudoun religion, Dunham explored the people of Haiti’s dances and their links to spirituality and its African and Caribbean roots. In fact, Dunham lived in Haiti for many years and became a Vudoun priestess and helped with the political uprising of the country.
Dunham brought her teaching to America in 1939, she submitted her thesis – “Dances of Haiti, Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function.” Through her research and time in Haiti, Dunham opened up the Kathrine Dunham School of Dance ( which famed performer Eartha Kitt and Sidney Poitier attended) and began teaching the fundamental movements she acquired overseas, which is now known as a the “Dunham Technique.”
Unlike other modern dance techniques, the Dunham Technique encourages dancers to use their spines, elongate their bodies, incorporate their hips and isolate their bodies. It also integrates the traditional elements of Euro-American ballet with movements that highlighted an Afro-Caribbean personality by utilizing African drums and rhythms. Dunham not only taught and wrote about the Haitians, through her dance studio, she taught her American dancers courses in humanities, language, drama and speech. With this, the Dunham technique has become mainstream and is a art form taught throughout the world and has introduced African Dance as a genre of dance.
Through her teachings, Dunham acquired the title of ‘dancing anthropologist’ and actually founded the field of dance anthropology. Yet, she was also a politician and an activist. The Katherine Dunham Company (which is the first African American dance company) toured throughout North America in the mid-1940s, even performing in the then segregated South, where she demanded an integrated crowd. Her activism continued into her golden years where at the age of 82 she went on a highly publicized 47-day hunger strike to protest what she condemned as the prejudice U.S. foreign policy against Haitian refugees. After it ended, in honor of her strength and courage, she was awarded by the Haitian government with the highest title of the “Spiritual Mother of Haiti.”
In 2006 at the ripe age of 96, Dunham lost her life to natural causes. Yet, her legacy continues through her books, dance techniques, research and in the lives of the people she touched. Her fusion of scholarship and movement demonstrates the connection between the styles of dance between the African American and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Dunham showed that no matter where a person comes from, dance is an art that all cultures can relate to. Dance is a universal language and because of it, many barriers have been broken.
So the next time, you dance, thank Ms. Kathrine Dunham for her vision and dedication to bridging the gap!