Dr. Patterson/ Dr. Collins
English 112 Honors
7 April 2009
Katherine Dunham, a pioneer of dance, writes in her publication "Notes on the Dance, with Special Reference to the Island of Haiti," "Dance is a rhythmic motion for one or more of a number of reasons: social cohesion, psychological catharsis, exhibitionism, autohypnosis, pleasure, ecstasy, sexual selection, play recreation, development of artistic values, stimulus to action, aggressive or non-aggressive, extension and affirmation of social patterns, and others (514). This quote demonstrates Katherine's commitment to dance and the use of dance as a form of expression. Katherine Dunham developed a dance tradition that was an all-encompassing art form and educational activity. Katherine used art to express hidden feelings, political views, and life. She felt using art to create rather than to destroy could save many cities, East St. Louis among them, by allowing children and adults to transform their fear or anger into something beautiful for the community. Katherine Dunham revolutionized dance by fusing African tribal movements with modern movements; however, she accomplished more than just creating new dances. Through her efforts since her arrival in East St. Louis in 1967, Dunham made a lasting impression upon dance and East St. Louis. She used dance to positively affect the youth and ultimately unite a community.
Dunham's accomplishments reach further than anyone expected, especially her ability to influence the youth of East St. Louis. Gangs and extremist groups made Dunham's actions more difficult but more necessary. In her book Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life, Joyce Aschenbrenner writes, "In the meantime financial institutions, businesses, and in entertainment also fled the city. The remaining social institutions—churches and sororal and fraternal organizations—served the older generation, but unemployment and a lack of cultural and social amenities demoralized the younger citizens of East St. Louis" (178). The youth became susceptible to violence and destruction without anything to redirect their frustrations and feelings. Later in her book, Aschenbrenner comments, "The college students favored a nonviolent approach… Those who were not attending college joined such organizations as the Black Panthers and Black Culture, Inc.—founded by the Reverend Charles Koen of Cairo, Illinois—emphasizing black pride, as well as such gangs as the Disciples, Gangster Disciples, and Imperial War Lords" (Ibid 178). In addition, gang organizations from Chicago went into neighborhoods of East St. Louis to recruit members (Ibid 179). Young adults and children who lacked positive opportunities turned towards destruction and Dunham's worked to change that. Her activity center allowed children and young adults to vent their frustrations and experiences into creative dance or other positive activities. By involving the youth of East St. Louis in dance and other art forms, Dunham constructively shaped East St. Louis and allowed the youth to evolve from juvenile delinquents to inspirational performers.
Not only did Dunham influence the youth of East St. Louis, she used her ability to unite the community through community celebrations and public statements. For example, she developed choreography that brought the community together for celebrations. "Examples of community celebration included The Ode to Taylor Jones, in honor of a local civil rights worker who had died in an accident, with poetry by [Eugene] Redmond and choreography by Dunham. Dunham dancers, including Dunham herself, often celebrated community events, funerals, and even business openings… Redmond reminisced, "I don't think America had ever seen anything like that before. She would actually bless and consecrate or ritually anoint all over town" (Aschenbrenner 187). A community, in a traditional sense, does not regard dance as a ritual yet Katherine Dunham gave dance extra meaning and gave the community something to believe in. Joyce Aschenbrenner also writes, "Dunham worked with the materials she found in the community and adapted her choreography to local themes" (ibid. 186). The community did not change to suit her; she changed her dance to suit the community, giving the community a sense of belonging and necessity. In addition, Dunham used the community as an educational place and connected the community. Redmond points out, "It was consistent with what a lot of people were proclaiming at the time, not just Miss Dunham alone, that everybody was part of an educational process, the total community was the classroom" (Ibid. 181). By giving the community emphasis in the educational process, she showed the relationship between art and community development (Ibid 181). Dunham gave East St. Louis a reason to work together, to educate its children, and flourish despite the horrible situation of the community.
Dunham accomplished many things in her lifetime, but one can speculate that her most important achievement is her effect on East St. Louis. In 1986, she won several awards: the Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association; the Southern Cross, Award of honor and Merit from the Government of Brazil, and many others (VeVe A. Clark xix). No one can argue the work of Dunham, but one can argue the reasons behind her actions. Why did she choose East St. Louis as her adopted home when she grew up in Chicago, IL? Perhaps East St. Louis's apparent need for a mentor, for a person with insight into helping a community, called to her. On the other hand, Katherine Dunham could have seen East St. Louis as a clean slate. A city with a background of turmoil that could easily be built up into a great city with a cultured and significant history. Dunham once stated, "When I was in Brazil, working with the ballet company, they were educated; most black dancers [in the United States] had little education" (Aschenbrenner 172). Considering this statement, one can infer the uneducated blacks of East St. Louis called to Dunham's conscience. East St. Louis possessed nothing but hatred and financial instability. Without a sturdy basis, East St. Louis became the perfect city that Dunham could create anew and transform into an educated and cultured city with a history more rich and important than that of Springfield, Illinois. East St. Louis did not need a mentor. A mentor helps someone lost or confused; however, if a person never possessed anything, why do they need a mentor? East St. Louis needed a revolutionary to build it up. Katherine Dunham was a revolutionary.
Aschenbrenner, Joyce. Katherine Dunham: Dancing A Life. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2002.
Clark, VeVe A. and Sara E. Johnson, eds. Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.
Dunham, Katherine, "Notes on the Dance, with Special Reference to the Island of Haiti," in Seven Arts. Edited by Fernando Puma. New York: Doubleday, 1954.