Thursday, March 20, 2008

Katherine Dunham speaks

Here is a wonderful television interview with Katherine Dunham, the legendary dancer and choreographer who died in 2006 at the age of 96.

I knew almost nothing about Ms. Dunham’s life before stumbling on this video. I didn’t even know she had trained as an anthropologist.

But this 1982 program – produced by a Chicago TV station and archived at the Museum of Broadcast Communications – covers some fascinating ground, from Dunham’s glamorous life in New York, Hollywood and Paris to her passion for the people and culture of Haiti.

She attracted media attention for marrying a white man. As a lifelong social activist, Dunham was accused in the 1950s of being a Communist.

She founded a school of cultural arts in Manhattan where Eartha Kitt as a teenager learned to dance (and Marlon Brando learned to play the bongos).

Just listening to Katherine Dunham speak, you can tell she’s a brilliant woman. She lived a great life.

The full 22-minute TV show is embedded below.


Reginald Hudlin said...

Ms. Dunham was a huge influence on our entire family. She helped get my brother into Yale, which led to me going to Harvard. She brilliantly balanced artistic excellence, intellectual rigor and social activism.

Her dance style was "high art", but firmly rooted in social black dance vernacular, which made it accessable to regular people. She created a quiet revolution in my home town of East St. Louis by bringing together an amazing group of artists, educators and locals to create a college prep program and community center that really worked.

One of the all time greats.

Carla said...

Thanks for posting that. When I was about 14yo, I was luck enough to have an older black mentor who took me to one of the many KD tributes that took place around the country in the years before she passed. I feel so lucky to have seen and learned of her work and commitment to her community. So rare that someone of her stature truly practices, Each one, teach one. Left a big impression on me at that age.

Thanks again.

Undercover Black Man said...

Thanks for that, Reg. You crossed my mind when the host mentioned Ms. Dunham's commitment to East St. Louis.

Undercover Black Man said...

Left a big impression on me at that age.

I can imagine, Carla. Thanks for commenting.

Des said...

My fifth grade grand daughter wrote about Katherine Dunham for her Black History Project. Until then I only knew that she was a dancer and had gone on hunger strike for something or other. I didn't know Jack.

She not only single handedly introduced Caribbean dance styles to the rest of the world but using her skill as an anthropologist, linked them to their African roots.

Some other things that we learned about her include:

She was "voodoun" Priestess.

She never had formal dance training until her late teens.

She played Georgia Brown in the stage version of "Cabin in the Sky", which happens to be one my grands' fave movies.

She made sure her large dance troupe was paid, even if it came out her own pocket.

She was a Fierce Anti-Segregationist. She once told an all white audience after one of her performances, that she would never return until they integrated. She turned down lucative Hollywood money because they asked her to replace some of the darker-skinned members of her troupe. And she persuaded the President of Brazil to pass a law forbidding public discrimination after she had filed a discrimation suit against a hotel there.

At the age of 82, she went on a 47-day hunger stike to protest conditions in Haiti. She ended after a personal visit and appeal from President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

A truly Awesome and Amazing person.

fullnelson said...

Being from St. Louis, I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Dunham on several occasions, and visiting her home/museum in East St. Louis. In her later years, when she could have lived anywhere in the world and STILL be treated as a celebrity, she deliberately CHOSE to return to East St. Louis to teach, mentor, and enrich her own community. I was amazed at how accessible she allowed herself to be, and how she so eagerly welcomed the opportunity to talk about her travels, what she had learned, and show the many artifacts of her career. Her museum contained many of the costumes from dances she had made famous in countless movies; she had photos, Haitian art. She was so unselfish in her willingness to share her talents and love of the arts. She entertained people in her home frequently, and appeared at many community events. Katherine Dunham was a treasure, and I feel so enriched by having gotten to know her in the too brief time she was on this earth.

Lola Gets said...

Dammit, UBM! I was researching Katerine Dunham for one of my Womens History Month posts!

I studied Dunham Technique at Smith College. She was the first one who formalized the study of Afro-Caribbean (Cuban) dance and turned it into a disipline similar to ballet.

I have her autobiography and her book about her stay in Haiti when she became a priestess of vodoun.

I LOVE her!

Good post, though.



Brother OMi said...

it was through her that i started studying more african based martial arts. her research was helpful