Celebrating Black History Month: Spotlight on Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Article by Desiree Houston, Patron Services Assistant

Katherine Dunham was an African American dancer, choreographer, and scholar who utilized her anthropology studies in the Caribbean to create revues based on Afro-Caribbean dance rituals.  

Dunham was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1909. She earned a bachelor, masters and doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago. While working towards her degrees, Dunham studied dance under Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill. As a graduate student, Katherine Dunham also received a Rosenwald Fellowship to study traditional dances in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti. She used her research and findings to introduce African and Caribbean rhythms to modern dance.  

Dunham established the Negro Dance Group company, which was later developed into the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. The company toured to more than 50 countries before performing for the last time in 1965, at the Apollo Theatre. She also founded the Dunham School of Dance and Theater. In 1963, tasked with creating choreography for the new production of Aida, Dunham became the first African American to choreograph at the Metropolitan Opera since 1934. Her choreography includes Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. She also starred in films such as Carnival of Rhythm, Stormy Weather, and Casbah.  

As an advocate for racial equality, Dunham used her performances to highlight discrimination within the US and refused to perform at segregated theaters while on tour in the South. At the age of 82, Dunham staged a 47-day hunger strike to protest the United States’ repatriation policy of Haitian refugees.   

Katherine Dunham received numerous of awards for her contributions to the arts, including the Kennedy Center Honors and Presidential Medal of the Arts. Dunham passed away in 2006 in Manhattan.