Katherine Dunham: a Woman of Many Wonders

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Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 22, 1909 as the youngest child of Albert Millard Dunham and Fanny June (Guillaume), with an older brother, Albert Jr., as well as children from her mother’s first marriage. Her heritage included Indian, French Canadian, English, Malagasy (Madagascan) and African ancestry (Aschenbrenner 7). Dunham’s mother passed away when Katherine was only four and their father left the children with their aunt Lulu, where Katherine faced multiple instances of prejudice as African Americans were flooding North at this time (Aschenbrenner 8). These early experiences of prejudice and as a go between in her aunt Lulu’s custody battle for Dunham and her brother played a large role her approach between classes, race and also as a “culture broker” for her dancers, students and people of other cultures (Aschenbrenner 8). Katherine Dunham did not begin formal dance training until her late teens. In Chicago she studied with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill. She attended the University of Chicago after receiving a scholarship and graduated in 1936 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology. Here, 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 youngsters’ dance classes and gave recitals in a Chicago storefront (Sommer). She departed after graduation for the West Indies (Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, Martinique) to do field research in anthropology and dance. Dunham was an incredibly interesting person who consistently tried to better the lives of those around her as demonstrated by the turmoil she faced as a result of her aunt losing the custody battle as well as her immense recognition for the importance of culture in the embracement of one’s full identity. Further, ties to both sides of her family enabled Dunham at a young age to...
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