This post is by Caneisha Mills, the 2022-2023 Library of Congress Teacher-in-Residence.
What life experiences foster creativity for artists?
One artist whose life answers this question is Katherine Dunham. She was a trailblazer in anthropology and modern dance, mixing dance genres to express her point of view as an artist. Born in Chicago in 1909, Dunham began dancing in her teens. She was trained in classical ballet and also experimented with modern dance during her early years. She also wrote at an early age. This short story appeared in The Brownies’ Book, edited by W.E.B. DuBois, in 1921.
Katharine Dunham started university in the late 1920s, after the First World War and during the Great Migration. After completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago in 1929, Dunham began researching Afro-Caribbean dance traditions in Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad, and Martinique. Her research was part of her investigation of traditional dance forms in the region.
Her desire to research dance techniques in the Caribbean was sparked by her belief that “The [dance] techniques that I knew and saw and experienced were not saying the things that I wanted to say”, as Dunham stated in a 2002 interview about her contributions to the field of dance. She believed it was necessary to represent “the people” in the dances she created.
- What do you believe Dunham wanted to say through dance?
- Why do you think Dunham found classical ballet useful for storytelling?
- How can dance capture “the culture and life of a people”?
Dunham’s contributions to the field of dance are explained in the essays accompanying “Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection”. Her first teacher, Ludmilla Speranzeva, encouraged Dunham to combine the traditional techniques of modern dance with Afro-Caribbean traditions. When interviewed about her choreography in 1944 by the Detroit Times, Dunham said, “[The dances I choreograph] really take a great deal of research.” This research took her around the world, and the ethnographic field recordings she produced can still inspire children today. For example, showing children her film footage from Martinique, such as Ag’ya, Martinique Fieldwork, 1936, could spark curiosity about this combat dance, similar in style to Brazilian capoeira.
Celebrate the legacy of Katherine Dunham and the power of dance by looking, reading, and listening as a family.
Katherine Dunham is photographed in different performances. Together you can make predictions about the plot of some of her productions, and watch one of the fieldwork recordings which inspired her development of a new style of dance known as the “Dunham Technique.”
Also, check out her Haitian fieldwork!
Thinking Questions and Activities:
- What do you notice first in the photograph?
- What part of Katherine Dunham’s costume catches your eye?
- Predict what you believe Katherine Dunham’s character will do in “Veracruzana” based on her costume.
- Based on her facial expression, write a short monologue of lines Katherine Dunham might have performed.
You may also want to explore the following photographs using the same techniques:
Katherine Dunham chronicled her own life and young adulthood in Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood. In addition, there are many books about her in the Library’s collections. Katherine Dunham: Black Dancer and Katherine Dunham: Pioneer of Black Dance are suitable for young readers.
Katherine Dunham describes different techniques, the development of her own style, and her contribution to American dance in many Library of Congress resources. She was interviewed for a series of short, accessible clips in 2002. These clips contain meaningful moments or lessons that your family can discuss. For example, in the beginning of an interview in 2002 she stated, “Breathing sustains what we’re putting forth”.
The work of Katherine Dunham contributes to our understanding of different cultures, and how they can inspire us. Videos featuring Katherine Dunham and the Dunham Technique will be a part of Library collections available for children and families in a new interactive learning center that will open in the next few years. But while you’re waiting for the learning center, here are some other Library of Congress resources to explore:
- Katherine Dunham: A Life in Dance describes Dunham’s groundbreaking work in modern dance and dance anthropology.
- Katherine Dunham Timeline outlines her personal history and significant dates in her life.
- Collecting a Career: The Katherine Dunham Legacy Project details the Library’s efforts to record Dunham’s achievements.