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Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham remains an American icon. She cannot be understood solely by her prowess as a dancer and choreographer. She was also a director, scholar, social activist and published author. She packed a tremendous array of accomplishments into her 97 years, influencing hundreds of dancers, writers, activists and politicians along the way. The majority of her work — whether it was dance or art — was rooted in the culture of the West Indies, where she conducted both dance and anthropological research in the 1930s. The traditions she discovered in her travels remained with her throughout her illustrious career in the world of dance, showing their influence in her choreography.

Dunham’s professional dancing career began in the early 1930s, after she landed a lead in the ballet La Guiablesse. However, her experiences and travels through the countries of the West Indies’ and Haiti in particular, shifted her focus from the classical to the modern. She was keen to incorporate the exciting styles she experienced in those countries into an emerging form of American dance. Dunham’s techniques embraced the emotions and the essence of the cultures she studied, whose history of dance were directly connected to the African continent. She integrated the principals of “a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving” with the classical techniques of ballet and the fluidity of modern dance moves [source: Sommer]. These became the foundation of what is now known as the Katherine Dunham Technique. Of her the many famous and innovative dances she choreographed, her first full-length ballet — L’Ag’Ya — remains one of her crowning achievements. Based on a folktale about love and revenge, it was mixture of African-Caribbean styles, including the ag’ya, also known as the fighting dance of Martinique.

Over the course of her life, Dunham campaigned for civil rights and desegregation in the United States and other countries she visited. As part of her efforts to fight poverty and bring art to underprivileged children and teens, she opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis [source: Library of Congress]. Her many awards include the Albert Schweitzer Award, the Kennedy Center’s Honor Award, and induction into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.

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