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Bringing History and Dance Together: The World of Katherine Dunham

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Using dance can bring history to life. Looking at dancers in photographs, films and other images, and reading about dancing and its role in celebrations, commemorations, and other events can help students learn about  issues and events that were considered important in a community, how people celebrated, what mores and values were important, and how people dressed when going to these events. Dance can help students meet Common Core State Standards, including those related to integrating visual materials to material in print and visual texts as well as those related to evaluating multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media.

Katherine Dunham by Phyllis Twachtman, 1956
Katherine Dunham by Phyllis Twachtman, 1956

One person who studied dance and how people used dance in select cultures was Katherine Dunham, a pioneer in what she called dance anthropology. After completing her studies in dance and anthropology at the University of Chicago, Dunham received a fellowship to study dance in the Caribbean. Her studies in Haiti, Jamaica, and the West Indies led to a number of publications, but also changed how Dunham viewed dance and how she choreographed and taught dance. The Library of Congress is extremely fortunate to offer online resources from the Katherine Dunham Collection to help students of dance and of history learn a different way of viewing history as well as a different way of dance.

Mazouk from L'Ag'Ya
Mazouk from L’Ag’Ya

To help students use dance  to learn about a community’s values and experiences, show the video of the dancers performing the Mazouk. Encourage them to  record their thinking on the Library’s primary source analysis tool  as they watch the dance. Ask them to think about what is happening in this dance and what they might be celebrating. Then play the recording of Dunham talking about the history of the dance. How does this change their perception of the dance? If time allows, show the video again, and ask students to update the analysis tool with additional observations, reflections, and questions.

In addition, students can watch the Eugenie to compare the Mazouk to a traditional waltz. What are the similarities and differences? Why would dancers from the African American and African Caribbean communities want to dance in the same way as the members of the Anglo community?

Show students the Trinidad Fieldwork recording and then show them the Blind Man’s Buff video. What are the similarities and differences between the two dances? What emotions does each dance evoke?

Encourage students to identify events they attend that include dancing. What role does dance play in the event? How would the event be changed without dancing?

How else can you use dance to study history? Tell us in the comments.

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