Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham is best known for her work as a dancer and anthropologist. She worked as a dancer, anthropologist, writer, educator, activist, choreographer, and singer throughout her life. Born in Chicago and raised in Joliet, Illinois, Dunham moved to Chicago as a teenager, and later attended the University of Chicago to study dance and anthropology. Combining her interests in cultural studies, anthropology, and dance, Dunham created a signature dance and choreography style, known as the Dunham Technique. She spent a great deal of time doing research in Haiti and Jamaica, and was influenced by Caribbean dance and culture as well as African American dance and culture. Together these threads form the Dunham Technique and include elements African American, Caribbean, West African, South American, and European movement, sound, and rhythm. Through dance Dunham aimed not only to produce interesting performances, but also to work actively against expectations, stereotypes, and racist beliefs about “black dance.” Dunham and her company performed at several locations in Miami during the 1940s.



Katherine Dunham performed at the Latin Quarter


Katherine Dunham performed at the Eden Roc Hotel’s Café Pompeii

Katherine Dunham and her company performed at the Eden Roc Hotel’s Café Pompeii, likely during her tour in the 1950s. Miami Beach had strict segregation laws at the time which meant that no black people were allowed in the audience, though many of the performers were black. One evening Thurgood Marshall visited Dunham’s dressing room at the Eden Roc and asked her to reserve a table for him and his friends for one of the supper shows. In the biography, Dancing a Life (2002) Joyce Aschenbrenner writes that Dunham thought she would “’be put out’” of the venue for requesting tables for her friends in a segregated space. While she obliged Marshall that evening and other friends during performances elsewhere including Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker, and Sammy Davis, Jr. she said, “’I never wanted to eat in those places because I thought they’d spit in the soup.’” (135) Dunham recognized the importance of breaking social barriers in through her dance performances, research, writing, and political activism. Just the presence of the Dunham Company in places that were segregated helped expose new audiences to the people, cultures, histories, and experiences she channeled through her dancing and choreography. As she explained in a 2005 interview, “dance becomes such a delight because you are moving on a stream that is you, but is over and beyond you.”



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