Born June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, near Chicago, Dunham enjoyed the security of a middle-class suburban existence for the first four years of her life. Her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a tailor who had his own business in Chicago. Her mother, Fanny June Guillaume Taylor, who was twenty years older than her husband, was an assistant principal at a city school. Dunham's life changed drastically though, in 1914, when her mother became seriously ill and died, leaving Albert to raise Katherine and her older brother, Albert Jr, alone. Eventually, financial obligations forced Katherine's father to sell the family's home, sacrifice his business, and accept a job as a traveling salesman. Over the next few years, Katherine and Albert Jr, stayed with their aunt Lulu Dunham and various relatives in sections of Chicago. They stayed first with cousins Clara Dunham and her 17-year-old daughter. Both were actresses, and lived in an apartment that was also used as a rehearsal space for a black vaudeville show, which they were producing. Later, they moved in with another cousin, who took Katherine to shows at the local theaters, where she delighted in the performances of singers like Bessie Smith, and dancers like the team, Cole and Johnson. These experiences gave Katherine a taste of the entertainment world that she would come to love.
Katherine Dunham did not begin formal dance training until her late teens. In Chicago she studied with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill, and danced her first leading role in Ruth Page's ballet "La Guiablesse" in 1933. She attended the University of Chicago on scholarship and received a B.A. in Social Anthropology in1936 where she was inspired by the work of anthropologists Robert Redfield and Melville Herskovits, who stressed the importance of the survival of African culture and ritual in understanding African-American culture. While in college she taught dance classes and gave recitals in a Chicago storefront to the younger generation, calling her student company founded in 1931 "Ballet Negre."
Awarded a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship in 1936 for her combined expertise in dance and anthropology, she departed after graduation for the West Indies and traveled to Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique to do field research in anthropology and dance. Combining her two interests, she linked the function and form of Caribbean dance and ritual to their African ancestors. The West Indian experience changed forever the focus of Dunham's life; eventually she lived in Haiti half of the time and became a priestess in the "vodoun" religion, and caused a profound shift in her career. This initial fieldwork provided the core for future researches and began a lifelong involvement with the people and dance of Haiti. From this Dunham generated her master's thesis at Northwestern University in 1947 and more fieldwork. She lectured widely, published numerous articles, and wrote three books about her observations: Journey to Accompong (1946), The Dances of Haiti (1947), and Island Possessed (1969), underscoring how African religions and rituals adapted to the New World. Importantly for the development of modern dance, her fieldwork began her investigations into a vocabulary of movement that would form the core of the Katherine Dunham Technique. What Dunham gave modern dance was a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement which was a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance.
When she returned to Chicago in late 1937, Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group, a company of black artists dedicated to presenting aspects of African-American and African-Caribbean dance. Immediately she began incorporating the dances she had learned into her choreography. Invited in 1937 to be part of a notable New York City concert, "Negro Dance Evening," she premiered...
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