BORN: June 22, 1909 - DIED: May 21, 2006
As a native of Chicago, IL, Ms. Dunham has many accomplishments under her belt. She was a dancer, choreographer, author, educator, anthropologist, and social activist. She also had one of the most successful dance careers in African-American and European theater of the 20th century, and directed her own dance company for many years. She has been called the "matriarch and queen mother of black dance."
Ms. Dunham became interested in dance at a young age. While still an undergraduate student, she began to study ballet and was exposed to Spanish, East Indian, Javanese, and Balinese dance forms. At the tender age of 21 she formed a group called Ballets Negres, which was one of the first black ballet companies in the U.S. Even though it was short lived, it gave her the courage to open her first dance school in 1933 named the Negro Dance Group. It became a premier venue for her to teach young black dancers about their African heritage. Then she would later become a lead dancer in other productions that would also include her students from the Dance Group in the ensemble.
For many years from 1933 through the late 1960's she appeared in some 30 countries developing dozens of new productions. While Ms. Dunham had plenty of success, there were times of financial difficulties, racism and mental strain. In 1963 she became the first African American to choreograph for the Met in NY. There were both positive critics and not so positive for this production. In 1967 she officially retired from dance after a final show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY.; however she continued to choreograph many productions thereafter. In 1978 she was featured in the PBS special, Divine Drumbeats: Katherine Dunham and Her People. Later Alvin Ailey would also produce a tribute to her in 1987-1988 at Carnegie Hall with his American Dance Theater, entitled The Magic of Katherine Dunham. They both were phenomenal tributes to her Life In Dance.
Ms. Dunham's illustrious career spanning many decades allowed her the platform to combat poverty and urban unrest, restructuring working-class jobs, high unemployment rates and also encouraging gang members in the ghetto to use drumming and dance to vent their frustrations. During this time she herself was arrested while helping and training the people in her community to be better citizens. She would later teach generations of dancers the Dunham Technique to transmit that knowledge to succeeding generations of dance students.