Black History Month Spotlight: Dancer Katherine Dunham

In honor of black history month, Dancing with Class honors African American dancer, Katherine Dunham.  She raised awareness to African Dispora cultures (cultures of African decent that were displaced to different countries due to slave trade like Jamaica) by merging Caribbean cultures’ traditional dances with ballet techniques to create her own modern dance technique.  Dunham showed dancing isn’t just an art form dancing can be a form of research.  Dunham knew that one could learn about a culture by focusing on their dances.  Dancing in some cultures can be ceremonial, a form of celebration, a way to teach skills, and so much more.       

Twachtman, Phyllis. Katherine Dunham in costume. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, .

Katherine Dunham   

Early Life in Chicago 

Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Glyn Ellen, Illinois.  Dunham studied anthropology (focusing on dance) and earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago.  Dunham was the first African American woman to attend this university and receive all three degrees.  After graduation, she created the Negro Dance Group in 1933 in Chicago.   Her group performed in several places which led them to perform for the Rosenwald Foundation.  In particular, Mrs. Rosenwald was so impressed that she offered to pay for any study or trip that related to Dunham’s dance career.  Dunham used the money in 1935 to study all aspects dance related in the CaribbeanDunham conducted research in Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Martinique 

The Revolution of American Dance 

Katherine Dunham’s research in the Caribbean laid the groundwork for her choreography and dance companies.  Through her performances, Dunham began to introduce early forms of African-American dances like “cakewalk” or “juba” to raise awareness to the European dance world  Dunham eventually created dance schools and companies that included her signature African American and Afro-Caribbean based choreography.  Soon after, she developed her own dance technique, the Dunham Technique.  It was the first of its kind to blend Caribbean dances, African rituals, and African-American rhythms into traditional ballet.  Today, this technique is learned by many dancers around the world.  Throughout her dance career, Dunham has taught famous names we know today like Eartha Kitt and Alvin Ailey. 

Katherine Dunham was also well known as a dance historian, scholar, and teacher due to providing presentations using not only photos, films, and writings of various cultures, but she uniquely demonstrated the cultures’ traditional dances.  She taught students in her dance school ballet, tap, and of course African diaspora dance forms/percussion. 

Throughout her career she naturally advocated for racial equality.  Throughout her performances she refused to perform in racially segregated venues within the United States and in other countries around the world like Brazil.  Katherine Dunham passed away in New York City in 2006. Her passionate research and choreography lives on in the dance world, scholarly world, and in the success of other African-based dance companies.   

Katherine Dunham reminds us not to limit ourselves.  Research and activism comes in many different forms, including dance.  She particularly showed this through the way she lived her life and followed her passions. 

Your students and children can use their dancing as a learning tool too.   Check out Dancing with Class’ Dance Around the World curriculum!  This curriculum teaches dances from all across the globe. 

Twachtman, Phyllis. Katherine Dunham in costume. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Katherine Dunham in theBroadway hit production of Cabin in the Sky, co-choreographed by Dunham and George Balanchine. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.


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