Courtesy DM Archives

#TBT: How Katherine Dunham's Marriage of Anthropology and Artistry Shaped Modern Dance

To call Katherine Dunham a trailblazer is something of an understatement. She was the first American to present indigenous dance on the concert stage, the force behind the first self-supporting Black dance company in the U.S., an unflinching proponent of racial equality and the creator of one of modern dance's foundational techniques.


Born June 22, 1909, the Chicago native gained as much fame for her evocative performances as for her anthropological research, traveling to the Caribbean to immerse herself in cultures where dance was not merely entertainment, but a way of life. She brought back video footage, photographs and densely packed notebooks full of her observations.

Courtesy DM Archives

In the May 1947 issue of Dance Magazine, Katherine Dunham said, "I am only interested in dance as an education, as a means of knowing peoples."

In the May 1947 issue of Dance Magazine, she recalled: "I seemed always to live this sort of dual existence of having my intellect absorbed in searching out and annotating the real and authentic steps and movements, and an eye trained to see all of this color and movement and drama translated into theater idiom; and my notebooks, too, abound in marginal notes for use of the 'real' material in the theater when I returned home, for I was more than ever determined to have a group of dancers who would be able to show the people of the United States what others have contributed to our culture."

Dunham received a Dance Magazine Award in 1969, was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1983 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1989.

Latest Posts


Courtesy Esse

What It Was Like When Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was in the Audience—or Backstage

The 27 years that Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent on the U.S. Supreme Court were 27 years that she spent as one of Washington, D.C.'s most ardent, elegant and erudite supporters of the performing arts. The justice, who died on September 18 of metastatic cancer, was also an avid cultural tourist, traveling to the Santa Fe and Glimmerglass operas nearly every summer, as well as occasionally returning to catch shows in her native New York City.

Ginsburg's opera fandom was well known, but her tastes were wide-ranging. Particularly in the last 10 years of her life, after Ginsburg lost her beloved husband, Marty, it was not unusual for the petite justice and her security detail to be spotted at theaters several nights a week. She saw everything, from classic musicals to serious new plays, plus performances that defied classification, like Martha Clarke's dance drama Chéri, with Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, which toured to the Kennedy Center in 2014.

To honor Ginsburg, Dance Magazine asked three dance artists whose performances the justice attended to recall what Ginsburg meant to them.

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS