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Katherine Dunham’s Ethnographic Research in the Caribbean

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Head and shoulders portrtrait of a young African American woman
A studio photograph of Katherine Dunham in the 1920s. Music Division, Library of Congress.

Katherine Dunham is perhaps most famous for her influence on modern American dance with the introduction of African and Caribbean dance movement. That work began with ethnographic work in the Caribbean in 1936. Films made during her research have been put online by the Music Division of the Library of Congress in Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection. Dunham’s ethnographic work and her work as a dancer, choreographer, and dance educator are profoundly intertwined. She herself did not see these as separate. But for this blog I want to focus on her work as an ethnographer, as this contributed to modern ethnography of movement and gave rise to her unique work in the field of dance.

I find Dunham interesting because I became interested in dance notation as a graduate student for a different ethnographic purpose. I was studying narratives in American Sign Language and I was interested in attempts at writing signs, which were then experimental and based on dance notation systems. Writing movement is always problematic because it is difficult to arrive at a notation system that can lead to reproducible movements by someone reading off of paper. Perhaps it is hard to see why that is so important today in a world of easily made videos as well as options for live video on phones, computers, and other devices. But notation is important to pass on precise instructions for reproducing movements of the body and for movement analysis. To share scholarship and to publish a paper in an academic journal and so be taken seriously as a scholar, a publishable notation system is essential.

In this excerpt from a 2002 interview, Dunham talks about the difficulty of studying dance when she began her work. (The set of excerpts from this 2002 interview can be found at this link.)

Although some anthropologists were interested in documenting movement in the 1930s when Dunham was doing her fieldwork, there was not much prior scholarship on the anthropology of dance. Franz Boas and others had used still photographs to document physical postures of participants in ritual. Boas posed in a studio to make a sequence of photographs showing postures, so avoiding the problems of taking a camera into a sacred situation. The new medium of film was now making that study possible, but it was a difficult new technology for the field. Some short films were also made in the early 20th century, but often staged and, as a result, not always accurate. Labanotation, a method of writing down dance movements in choreography devised by Rudolf Laban in 1928, was not yet being used in anthropology and had not often been published in academic journals. This limited the study of movement. Dunham’s desire do an ethnographic study of dance in the Caribbean and apply choreography tools like labanotation to that study was on the cutting edge when she proposed it.

In the 1930s Dunham simultaneously pursued a career in dance and choreography and studied  anthropology at the University of Chicago. She formed a dance troupe, Ballets Nègres, in 1931 while still an undergraduate. Her troupe was one of the first African American Ballet companies in the United States. Two passions, dance performance and the ethnography of dance would define her career.

In 1935, Katherine Dunham, still an undergraduate, received a scholarship to do ethnographic research on dance in the Caribbean. In 1936 she made films of dances at various Caribbean locations as part of her research. Because of the technology available to her at the time, these are all silent black and white films. Many are short fragments of dances, sometimes focusing on the feet or the torso to study particular movements. Of course, as we watch these today, we want to hear the music and wish for documentation of full dances. But as they were, these films were extremely valuable in Dunham’s research on dance movement of peoples of the African diaspora. She found that it was easier to make films of social situations than of ceremonies, as is usually true in ethnography. But she did observe dance in ritual settings, such as Voudon religious dance.

As the surviving films show, she was interested in the differences between Western European social dance and classical ballet and African American dance. In one of the excerpts from the 2002 interview she talked about the need to include physical anthropology in dance education to talk about physiology and how the body moves in dance. She talked about her concept of the “pole through the body” and dance as a way of releasing energy. The movements of the hips are very different, as the hips are typically kept in line with the upper body in European styles of dance while in African dance and the dances of the African diaspora, the hips are more articulated, moving separately from the upper part of the body. She also learned that traditional Caribbean dancers kept their feet flat on the ground, rather than dancing on the balls of their feet.

In this social dance scene from Jamaica, Dunham captured several dance styles (silent). Additional films from Jamaica can be found at this link.

In this social dance scene from Martinique, a man dances with a pregnant woman (silent). The woman holds her belly and appears to bring the unborn child into the dance. Additional films from Martinique can be found at this link.

This compilation of very short films from Dunham’s fieldwork in Haiti shows various scenes of adults and children dancing in various contexts (silent). Another short, silent film of Haitian dance made by Fred Allsop of Mardi Gras performers between 1932 and 1937 can be found in the collection.

A martial arts form called l’ag’ya caught Dunham’s interest in Martinique. It is one of several related martial arts styles of the African diaspora found in the Caribbean, South America, and Central America. It is competitive and members of the audience wager on the outcome. Dunham, along with many others knowledgeable about these martial arts, saw a connection with dance. Postures and movements in many martial arts become regularized as practitioners learn how to fight without doing serious damage to their opponents. L’ag’ya fighters often have rhythmic movements as well, seen in some of Dunham’s films. So it is not surprising that she saw elements of dance in the fights she witnessed. She talks about this in one of the excerpts from the 2002 interview. Here is one of the three ethnographic videos of l’ag’ya in the online collection (silent). (The other two films of l’ag’ya fights made by Dunham as part of her fieldwork are available at this link.) Another interesting film Dunham made in Martinique shows two men dancing a traditional dance with each other. Although clearly a social dance and not a fight, it shows some of the same athleticism, and it appears that the two men are alternately trying to top one another and dancing in a friendly manner.

Katherine Dunham completed her bachelor’s degree in anthropology and, as a graduate student, submitted a thesis on her fieldwork in Haiti. She did not complete work for her master’s degree, however. It is not surprising that she could not continue to keep up a career in dance and complete her graduate work at the same time, but found she had to choose one path or the other. In choosing dance it seems she was choosing her first love. But her fieldwork in the Caribbean had a profound influence on the rest of her career. The fieldwork on the martial art l’ag’ya shown above is one of many examples of this. Her ballet, L’Ag’Ya, which premiered in 1938, showcased this martial art choreographed as dance as the dramatic climax of the story. A film showing part of the fight dance in a 1947 production at this link shows how she interpreted the martial art as dance for the stage. Read more about the ballet L’Ag’Ya in this essay in the collection.

Dunham had a lasting impact on ethnography as well as dance. As one of the pioneers in the ethnography of dance movement her work continues to have relevance today. In 1957 she published her work on Haitian dance in her book Les Danses d’Haiti with an introduction by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. It has been translated into several languages and is considered a foundational text in dance ethnography. She also changed the approach to the ethnographic study of movement. Every time an ethnographer uses a notation system to describe and analyze movement, they owe a debt to Katherine Dunham.

A group of young African American dancers jumping in the air
A group of Katherine Dunham Dancers shown in mid-rehearsal in New York, 1946. Photographer unknown. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


Bell, Danna, “Bringing History and Dance Together: The World of Katherine Dunham.” Teaching with the Library of Congress, March 27, 2014.

Find more blogs related to dance in Folklife Today

Find more blogs related to dance in In the Muse: the Performing Arts Blog

Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress


  1. I love this! One of my students showcased Katherine for my famous anthropologist assignment and I loved reading about her work in dance and anthropology of dance. It was great to see the film clips and see what she was talking about in the difference in style about the hip movements. Thanks for sharing about Katherine’s life.

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