Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora By Joanna Dee Das
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 288 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Debra Cash
You may not think you’ve seen Katherine Dunham dance, but you probably have. In the 1943 Hollywood film, Stormy Weather, she is idling under elevated train tracks as Lena Horne runs to close a window against torrential rain. The lilies in Dunham’s hair and pinned to her dress almost capsize her, but nothing can; not the man whose dance invitation she rejects with a shake of the head, and certainly not the storm. A clap of thunder transforms her, in the ways of Hollywood dream ballets, into a sort of vodou goddess, a loa. Striding down a ramp, hips leading, long legs unfolding, dress loose in the constant wind, she and her dancers create a swooning jazz romance in which undulating bodies and shoulders tilting on the beat speak with Caribbean accents. Dunham called this number her “escapist impression.”
That is one image of Katherine Dunham, the one that made her a favorite pinup girl for World War II soldiers and was represented on posters for her Broadway shows like Tropical Revue (1943) and on a commemorative US postage stamp issued in 2012.
But here’s another image of Dunham, in the storm of segregated Louisville, Kentucky. In October 1944, she famously ended a performance by turning to the white audience and saying
It makes me very happy to know that you have liked us . . . but tonight our hearts are very sad because this is a farewell to Louisville. There comes a time when every human being must protest in order to retain human dignity. I must protest because I have discovered that your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us. I hope that time and the unhappiness of this war for tolerance and democracy which I am sure we will win, will change some of these things. Perhaps then we can return. Until then, God bless you—for you may need it.
Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006) is often called the mother of black concert dance in the United States—although she vociferously objected to being defined in racial terms. She led a long, celebrated, extraordinary life in the public eye as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, activist, and self-declared cosmopolitan. She was of a mixed race background: her father, who ran a dry cleaners, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar; her mother, a school principal who died of stomach cancer when Dunham was just three, was of French-Canadian and Native American descent.
Raised in Joliet, Illinois, Dunham loved to perform from an early age and began formal dance training when she followed her beloved older brother to Chicago in 1928. She studied ballet with a Russian émigré and later with the dancer, choreographer, and teacher Ruth Page, in whose La Guiablesse (1934), based on a Martinican legend with an all-black cast, Dunham would make an early triumph.
She was introduced to the idea that black culture in America had its basis in indigenous African cultures at a lecture by the white anthropologist Robert Redfield at the University of Chicago. In 1929, that was not yet conventional wisdom. She decided to become an anthropologist and to focus her studies on dances of the African diaspora. By 1935, she had won a travelling fellowship to Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago, and ultimately to Haiti. This cultural immersion would change her life and the scope of modern and jazz dance in the United States. (Interestingly enough, Dunham and Zora Neale Hurston saw themselves as competing for funding and recognition in their work. Both women identified the African origins of black culture in the United States in the culture of the West Indies.)
During those visits, Dunham developed her participatory ethnographic fieldwork strategies, learning the dances she observed and ultimately being initiated as a vodou mambo (priestess). The regional dances, with their luxuriant freedom in the pelvis and spine, isolations in the body, and percussive polyrhythms, would later be codified into Dunham technique, a studio curriculum she insisted required study as thorough as that of ballet.
When the scholar Joanna Dee Das first went to New York at eighteen, she was surprised that Dunham technique was not a part of conventional dance training. Das had grown up studying jazz dance in St. Louis, where the teachers had strong Dunham connections. Later Das became a certified Dunham technique instructor (making her someone involved in embodied dance research) and a scholar. She helped to process the Katherine Dunham Papers at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center. These archives exist alongside the trove of materials (paid for with a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation) held at the Library of Congress. Das, who is white, describes herself as “a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice.” Katherine Dunham, based on her dissertation, is the first deep dive into a remarkable trove of primary resource materials. It will not be the last.
Katherine Dunham is a Great Woman study—a story of brilliance, will, and gumption. An academic rather than a popular biography (which more than once would have benefited from footnotes for people not in the fields of dance and/or Africana studies), it seeks to harmonize, even excuse, Dunham’s contradictory intentions and behaviors. Dunham was talented, ambitious, and self-serving. This made her an artist, but also set the stage for her failings.
Dunham walked the line between documentary truth and creative license. From the beginning, she was looking for a dance tradition that would affirm and ornament her own dancing and enrich her own identity. Her creative work was validated as documentary—reviews of the time often referred to her academic credentials—but as Das understands, Dunham was a modernist, evoking pan-African diasporic cultures for her own purposes. She believed in a “blood memory” or the unconscious transmission of African identity and cultural material (she did not actually visit the African continent until the 1960s), which she called her noir sensibility. This she related to negritude (then a term of pride and resistance to colonialism in Haiti) and later to Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor’s notion of metissage, African and European cultures hybridized into a new standard for humanism and agency. Das similarly argues for the essential “transnational unity among people of African descent,” yet without acknowledging that this is, itself, a historically rooted position, an explicit response to twentieth-century aspirations and to colonial and postcolonial struggles.
Unquestionably Dunham’s work offered “an aesthetic of modernity rooted in Africanist culture.” Both parts of that equation—the theatrical modernity and the Africanist use of the body and ritual reenactments like Yonvalou, the dance honoring the serpent god Damballa, or Shango, a fantastic scene of possession—are what make the best of her surviving work so satisfying to watch. In Dunham’s work, “primitive” meant closer to nature, more authentic, and more “universally” human. A promotional flier for a March 1937 Negro Dance Evening showcase in which she participated posited that West Indian dance spoke to a time when
the memory of a free life based on hunting and farming becomes more and more vague. But the black builders of the New World must sing and dance in order to forget the awful misery of their new life, which seems to hold no future.
Das offers a valuable section comparing Dunham’s ethnographic films, made during her Caribbean sojourns, with one of her productions, L’Ag’Ya. (For some reason she does not compare these productions to the work—and the reception—of touring African artists such as Sierra Leonian Asadata Dafora, who appeared with Dunham on that Negro Dance Evening in New York.) With multiple trips and a long residency, Dunham claimed an identity as an adopted daughter of Haiti; in 1992, when she was 82 years old and living in East St. Louis, she staged a 47 day long hunger strike to protest the US treatment of Haitian refugees. Yet Das does not venture to ask whether the urban anthropologist from Chicago was appropriating rural Haitian culture and romanticizing it for herself and her primarily white audiences.
Similarly, according to Dunham, the overt sexuality in her “tropical” dances wasn’t base or titillating; it was intimately linked to religious and the sacred. “Instead of fighting the association of blackness (and women) with the body, Dunham seized that association and turned it on its head,” Das writes, adding later that Dunham “drew on the erotic as a source of performative power.” Nevertheless, Dunham’s performances ended up reinforcing the association of blackness and women with the body: erotic glamour made Dunham a star and bought her the luxuries she came to assert were her due. Her career as a dancer and choreographer existed on the knife edge between the gratifications and commercial clout of sexual allure and the politics of social respectability. The impresario Sol Hurok, who managed her company for four years (and, although Das doesn’t report this, is reported to have insured Dunham’s legs for $250,000), called her
a quite superb combination of exoticism and intellectuality ... who had oscillated between the rarified atmosphere of women’s clubs and concert halls, on the one hand, to night clubs and road houses, on the other.
Dunham claimed her right to have it both ways, and so does Das.
From Dunham’s earliest years (she started her first black dance company, which lasted for only a single engagement, when she was 21), she thought in terms of building institutions. Dunham founded schools, companies, institutes, and retreat centers, and Das patiently documents them all. These cultural projects took form in the crucible of international theatrical practice and its emerging structures in the mid-twentieth century: presenters, grants, publicity, tourism, and the role of government agencies in cultural diplomacy.
They also, of course, took form in the context of American racism. Dunham developed strategies to deal with the routine Jim Crow indignities of not having a place to sleep or a restaurant to visit on tour. In 1945, she used a white go-between to purchase a mansion on the Upper East Side of New York for her school of dance, although she was forced to back out of the sale when the white neighbors complained, citing zoning. Still, Dunham made a fuss and Das notes, “she may have lost the house but she won the publicity war.” She eventually moved the school to the West Side, and her students included Hollywood actors (such as Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and James Dean) and returning soldiers who paid for classes with funding from the GI Bill. She was canny, but she preferred acolytes to skilled staff, and she was a terrible financial manager, leaving many bankrupt projects in her wake. It’s a marvel, really, that the Rockefeller Foundation could see past that fiscal track record to fund her school in East St. Louis, the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC). The foundation saw in Dunham’s work “a case for the viability of cultural [meaning artists] solutions to what were perceived as the cultural [meaning way of life] problems of poverty.”
Das shares some stories of Dunham’s vanity and sense of her own eminence, and quotes black collaborators such as the dancer and choreographer Talley Beatty, who ultimately felt Dunham's “primitive” work became stereotyped and cheap. However, Das rushes to Dunham’s defense, attributing these complaints either to artistic choice or racist context. I think it’s no coincidence that Katherine Dunham shares scant information about Dunham’s dancers, collaborators, lovers, and husband, the white designer John Pratt (beyond what has to have been a doozy of a first kiss), and why they threw in their lot with hers. They revered her and put up with her; but she also insulted and took advantage of them.
Nonetheless, Dunham remains an icon of the powerful, transformative black woman artist. In 1983, she was the recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and in 2000 named as one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition. Irreplaceable yes, but an American artist with an enduring legacy.
Debra Cash is executive director of the Boston Dance Alliance and scholar in residence at the Bates Dance Festival. She was fortunate to attend a public tribute to Dunham at Jacob’s Pillow in 2002.