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.

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Hayim Heron, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

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March 31, 2020: It was the day the summer dance festivals died. Though the respective directors of Jacob's Pillow, American Dance Festival and Bates Dance Festival hadn't planned to announce the cancellations of their 2020 editions all on the same day, their decisions appeared in inboxes and on social media channels within hours of each other. This news—marking the first operational break for these three festivals in their combined 212-year history—stood out among the host of spring event cancellations for its prescience. Most summer dance programs were still waiting to make any announcements, in the hope that more time might allow for less drastic cuts to programming. (Vail Dance Festival, which had been scheduled to open July 31, did not announce its cancellation until mid-May.)

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