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Katherine Dunham and Dance


Allison Poehler
Dr. Collins and Dr. Patterson
English 112 Honors
31 March 2009

"The dance as an art form is an increasingly strong social force, and undoubtedly contributions to the development of new, vital material and technique would be of great social significance" ("Need for the Study of Dances of Primitive Peoples" 521). World-renowned dancer and social activist Katherine Dunham believed that dance and the arts had the power to transform lives and improve communities. All ready established as a pioneer in dance, Dunham used her ingenuity, creativeness, and educational background in anthropology to fashion programs to improve the community of East St. Louis. Not only concerned with dance, Dunham provided a well-rounded education to the impoverished youth of East St. Louis involving music, photography, martial arts, and academics. By brining the arts to an impoverished community, Dunham not only gave the youth of the city an outlet for their frustrations, but saved teenagers lives as she worked to bring young gang members off of the streets. Her educational programs and museum exposed the youth of East St. Louis to their heritage and gave them the materials needed to fashion their own identities. Dunham's legacy continues today with a museum devoted to artifacts celebrating West Caribbean and African culture, but more importantly her legacy lives through the children she assisted.

Dunham's ability to assist the youth of East St. Louis grew out of the creativeness she developed as a pioneer of dance. As a dance and anthropology student at the University of Chicago, Dunham focused her work on black dance traditions in the Caribbean (Looker). Later as Dunham established her own dance traveling dance troupe and danced and choreographed numerous pieces, she crafted a unique style of dance that mixed elements of Haitian dance into movements of Western origin (Looker). "To create, rather than imitate, is now the major problem of the dancer, and to create in such a pure and tangible manner that the result will offer beauty and inspiration to lovers of art" (Need for the Study of Dances of Primitive People 520). Dunham realized the need for black expression through dance and created the Dunham Technique which actively explored and celebrated the richness of African and West Caribbean cultures. Her break from traditional dance is much like that of jazz in that Dunham fuses together Western traditions with African and Caribbean rhythms and creates an art form unique to black culture. "In practically every production there is a conscious, built-in, attention to all the needs and dreams of black people" (Redmond 561). Dunham used her technique to celebrate black arts, and ultimately to counter racist notions about black dance. By implanting elements of social change into her works, Dunham began fashioning the tools she needed to bring about real change in one of America's most impoverished communities.

After a 1964 invitation to become an artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Illinois Carbondale, Dunham began setting down her roots in southern Illinois and ultimately East St. Louis (Redmond 557). With a world famous reputation as a pioneer in dance, Dunham could have settled in any city. Talented and renowned, Dunham possessed the qualifications to teach the world's elite her form of dance, but East St. Louis, Illinois beckoned her. Born in Chicago, Dunham all ready had ties to Illinois. The dynamics of East St. Louis attracted Dunham:

In late 1960s, Katherine Dunham was still at the height of her creative powers, but she lacked a medium to communicate her spirit and vision. She found a context for her mission of 'culturalization,' as she termed it, in the ravaged city of East St. Louis, Illinois, by joining with the black social and political movements of the time (Aschenbrenner 173).

The youth of East St. Louis were caught up in violence during the Civil Rights period. Impoverished young people in East St. Louis had no other outlets to express themselves besides mobilizing into violence. Dunham recognized a need for the arts in the city, one which had no theatres or cinemas (Looker). More than a need for the arts Dunham saw that young people needed an identity, one formulated not by violence but by positive contributions to their community and the surrounding world. A deep desire to aid those in need brought Dunham to East St. Louis.

The social institutions of East St. Louis, namely churches and fraternal organizations, provided for the older generations but did not cater to the youth of East St. Louis (Aschenbrenner 178). The background of Civil Rights prompted numerous gangs that were prone to violence. The Imperial War Lords, the Black Egyptians, and the Black Culture sprang up around the city and gang recruiters from Chicago looked to East St. Louis to provide members (Looker). These gangs provided the only source of identity to young people as industry and jobs were fleeing the city. With poverty and racial discrimination all around, East St. Louis youth needed a means of expression. Dunham recognized and met that need through her programs. As she developed arts and education programs for the youth of East St. Louis, Dunham worked closely with gang leaders. She recognized the need to build a trusting relationship in order to improve their lives. With a predominately white police force and city government, East St. Louis officials used violence to counteract gangs (Aschendbrenner 178-179). Dunham became increasingly politically involved and coupled the arts with politics and social justice to reach East St. Louis youth and give them a voice.

Dunham used other techniques besides dance to improve the lives of East St. Louis youth. By understanding the needs of the people around her, Dunham not only improved the physical lives of her students but also their spiritual lives by giving students a means of creative expression and identity. She recognized the importance of gaining the trust of gang members throughout the city. East St. Louis police officers arrested Dunham once while she protested the unfair arrest of an East St. Louis youth (Looker). This act proved to gang youth that Dunham could be trusted. After setting up a performing arts center, Dunham began teaching the arts as a means of positive expression. As an anthropologist, Dunham recognized the need for young people to connect with a heritage, and through dance she gave her students a diverse cultural background. Dunham extended dance into a means of political expression. Teaching her students to use dance as a positive means of gaining social justice, Dunham provided a legacy of peacefulness to those she instructed:

A moderate, older leader, Dunham attempted a difficult balancing act, trying simultaneously to challenge the city establishment and mobilize the community while tamping down potential violence from the city's youthful militants (Looker).

After setting up the Performing Arts Training Center, Dunham also offered a diverse array of educational programs and partnered with Southern Illinois University's Experiment in Higher Education to give East St. Louis youth a better educational experience (Redmond 558). Offering academic studies and the arts, Dunham created a well-rounded educational program to nurture the city's youth.

Dunham's legacy can still be seen in East St. Louis. Her work on the east side influenced the lives of many youth who otherwise would have sought violence. Her museum gives a sense of pride for the community as it celebrates the rich cultures of the Caribbean and Africa (Stovall 570). More than that though, Dunham's legacy proves that if caring people come together and work for a common goal, the lives of young people in East St. Louis can be changed.

Works Cited

Aschendbrenner, Joyce. Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2002.

Dunham, Katherine. "Need for the Study of Dances of Primitive Peoples." From "Katherine Mary Dunham Papers", Special Collections. Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Dunham, Katherine. "Notes on the Dance, with Special Reference to the Island of Haiti." Seven Arts. New York: Doubleday, 1954.

Looker, Benjamin. "Point from Which Creation Begins." The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 2004.
Redmond, Eugene. "Cultural Fusion and Spiritual Unity." Unpublished paper. 11 June 1976.

Stovall, Jeanelle. "Katherine Dunham Museum." Unpublished paper in the "Katherine Mary Dunham Papers", Special Collections. Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 1977.

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