Haiti, Katherine Dunham’s “Island Possessed”

January 18, 2010

The catastrophe in Haiti made me re-look at what Haiti has meant in the dance world. It was the place and culture Katherine Dunham fell in love with, the place that helped her build her dance vocabulary and her spiritual, artistic self. If it weren’t for her research in Haiti, she wouldn’t have become the major American dance artist that she was.

When I interviewed her for Dance Magazine in 2000, she talked about Damballa, the snake god, and how that was the natural loa chosen for her as part of her vaudun initiation. She first visited Haiti in 1936; her book about Haiti, Island Possessed was published in 1969, after a lifetime of making and touring dances.

Here is what she wrote about the Damballa dance:

   “It was my favorite dance, the yonvalou, dance of humility, assurance, worship, the movements pacific as opposed…to other more frenetic dances of adoration.…The movement of the yonvalou is slow beside the ‘zepaules, Petro, or Ibo dances. It is fluid, issuing from the base of the spinal column, mounting the spinal column to the base of the skull, at the same time penetrating and involving the solar plexus, the plexus sacré, the pelvic girdle, and when this circuit is finished, mounting to the chest and head, drawing the attention of these in an unbroken circuit back to the plexus sacré.”  (I figure that means the sacrum.)

She continues: “For anyone interested in vaudun, the yonvalou becomes its signature. The movement is prayer in its deepest sense. …During the yonvalou we gravitated to partners, outdoing ourselves in undulating to low squatting positions, knees pressed against the knees of someone else without even realizing the closeness, each in his own transported world.”

The intensity of the vaudun experience pulled her back to Haiti again and again. She bought an old mansion there, Habitation LeClerc, which served as a rehearsal space as well as a center for minor medical remedies. (Does anyone know what happened to it?) She was so devoted to the Haitian people that, back in the U.S. in 1992, she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S. treatment of the Haitian boat people. She was 82 at the time.

Her influence in the dance field was huge: She inspired Alvin Ailey to dance, and many others including Matt Turney of the Graham company. My cover story on her in Dance Magazine in August 2000 is collected in Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham, edited by Vèvè A. Clark & Sarah East Johnson. Another book that talks about her time in Haiti is Katherine Dunham: A Dancing Life, by Joyce Aschenbrenner.

The current exhibit on Dunham at the Missouri History Museum is up till next month. Click here  for more about that. It’s worth a trip to St. Louis.

Back to the present day. I’m with Meryl Streep (vis a vis her Golden Globe acceptance speech) in sending money to Partners in Health, because they are they organization that already has a medical network throughout Haiti in which the physicians and people work together to treat people. Click here   to find out more. But any charity that helps people in Haiti will do. In fact, here is one that is local in NYC:

VIGIL: Relief for Haiti

Pray     Sing     Dance     Give

Friday Jan. 22, 2010, 10pm*

Reflections Yoga, 250 west 49th St., 2nd fl

between Broadway & 8th Ave www.reflectionsyoga.com

Join Organic Magnetics and the cast of FELA!


*8pm: Kirtan w/ Suzin Green, Rick Jarow & Friends

10pm-12am Live music, dance, poetry, silent art auction, and

a chance to win tickets to FELA!

All monies received from this bene�t will support:

Yele, Doctors Without Borders, and Partners In Health

www.yele.org, https://donate.pih.org, www.doctorswithoutborders.org

If you are interested in performing, donating artwork or volunteering for this benefit, please contact…

Maija Garcia: [email protected]

or T’ai Jamar Hanna: [email protected]



Photo: Katherine Dunham, DM Archives