Katherine Dunham (1909–2006)
From Dance in America: A Reader’s Anthology
“I had the advantage of being a pioneer.”
In 1930, when she was only twenty years old and still a student at the University of Chicago, Katherine Dunham formed Ballet Nègre, one of the first African American ballet companies in America. The company staged one well-received performance before disbanding. Undaunted, she then established a dance school for black students, focusing on modern dance styles informed by her academic research in anthropology. In 1934 she revived the Ballet Nègre with students from her school and they performed at the Chicago World’s Fair and the following year at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan.
For the rest of the decade she danced in, choreographed, or produced numerous performances of ballets, modern dance works, and even a musical revue. And then in 1940 she made her debut as a dancer on the Broadway stage in Cabin in the Sky, collaborating with George Balanchine on the choreography.
It was a rapid and glorious start to a 75-year-long career of the woman the press called “Katherine the Great.” Shortly after her Broadway debut she published an article explaining how her academic research informed the uniqueness of her dance techniques. The essay has been included in the new LOA anthology Dance in America (which has just arrived from the printer), and we present it as our Story of the Week selection.