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Student Essay--Dancing to Live


Katherine Dunham's Contributions to East St. Louis
Cassandra Baltzell

Gliding on stage in a stunning costume of feathers, intricate patterns, and layers of fabric, designed by her husband John Pratt, Katherine Dunham entranced her audience with unique choreography and display of creative African dances few have witnessed before. Dance to most, is just a colorful form of recreation or entertainment, yet Katherine Dunham truly believed in dance used it for more than just entertainment purposes, she used it to enrich and rejuvenate a city and its people. Katherine Dunham is known as an anthropologist and a pioneer of African American dance and used her skills to help the people of East St. Louis gain confidence and cultural awareness. After coming to East St. Louis to teach for one of the SIUE branches, she poured all of her available time and resources into the city and created the performing Arts Training Center, the Children's Workshop, and later the Katherine Dunham Museum, to provide opportunities for the people of the city to share in her love of the arts. She became involved in the city's political atmosphere and supported the Filler Dome project that Buckminster Fuller designed to help East St. Louis become a cleaner, more self sufficient city. Katherine Dunham cared for East St. Louis and its people until her death and because of her passion and commitment to East St. Louis, her influence can still be felt radiating throughout the city.

Katherine Dunham's past prepared her for her future role in East St. Louis. Born to Albert Millard Dunham and Fanny June in Chicago, Illinois in 1909, she became the youngest of her mother's children. After her mothers death a few years later she and her older brother Albert Jr. lived with her Aunt Lulu until her father remarried Annette Poindexter Dunham, says Ruth Beckford in her book Katherine Dunham, A Biography (Beckford 20). As she grew older, she excelled in track, basketball, and dance and performed well academically and later attended the University of Chicago and wrote her thesis on Anthropology and dance. She believed that the tools and non verbal communication used in dance and rituals had just as much importance as verbal communication in primitive societies yet remained understudied and documented (Beckford 26). After graduation she received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, which supports artists and their research, to study and report on her revolutionary view of dance and anthropology in the Caribbean, further strengthening her understanding of African and Caribbean cultures and dance which she would later use in developing her own dance technique. After her return from her eighteen month tour in the Caribbean, she formed an African American traveling Dance Company trained in primitive style dance, which performed in theaters all over the world and appeared in movies various movies from 1939 to 1967 (Beckford 41). She conducted extensive research on dance and anthropology before coming to East St. Louis and her numerous experiences outside the United States helped her gain and unique perspective on civil rights and African American Diaspora, which aided her in developing the right techniques to help the people of East St. Louis.

The Caribbean research done on anthropology and dance of primitive societies helped Dunham develop her unique Dunham Technique, which can be described as a spiritual and revolutionary style of dance. The Dunham technique includes the technique of isolation, which originated from primitive styles of dance and is described as the ability to move one part or muscle of the body while the others remain immobile (Beckford 51). Many of the dancers of Dunham's company had only been trained in contemporary styles of dance prior to joining and had developed an immobile torso and ridged arm structure, all of which they had to drastically change when learning Dunham Technique (Beckford 49). The Technique includes body rolls, contractions, and an influence of oriental movement Dunham picked up on her 1958 tour to Japan (Beckford 50). It's a dance technique that involves history, spirituality, and strict discipline of the muscles in the body.

Katherine Dunham worked hard through her dance, throughout her life, to fight for civil rights. Dunham and her company, when touring, protested when they found the theaters they performed in did not allow African Americans inside or forced the audience to segregate. Katherine Dunham demonstrated her passion for civil rights at a 1944 performance in Louisville, Kentucky, when she learned that the African Americans had been forced to sit in the balcony. She delayed the performance for an hour and finally taped a "whites only" sign to her posterior and walked calmly on stage. Showing the sign to the audience, she said that sadly her and her company would not be returning under any circumstances until the audience could be integrated (Feeney). "Within the week the theater in Louisville had changed its policy on ticket sales…" (Manning 264). She skillfully used dance as a catalyst for social change.

Dunham also fought for an anti lynching law in her ballet Southland, a very taboo and daring performance because it openly displayed the shameful decades of African American slavery and violent African American oppression in American history. The performance debuted in January 1951 in Santiago (Hill 348). The ballet included a scene where a white woman, out of shame, falsely accuses an African American field hand, of raping her. The field hand, only trying to be kind by helping when he finds her unconscious after her fiancé beats her, is innocent of the crime. The woman tears at her clothes and hair and skillfully persuades a mob to violently hang and burn the man (Hill 350). People quickly tried to cover up the story, eager to pretend that it had never happened. All newspapers that dared to write about Southland received warning that they would be withdrawn (Hill 351). People generally responded with shock that the glamorous performer Katherine Dunham, a mere performer, not an activist in the eyes of the public, would craft such a performance (Hill 352). Dunham said with her ballet what many had been afraid to say with words. She uncovered civil rights issues and forced the public to see the social injustices of the past that everyone had been trying to forget and made them realize that they had an effect on the present. She used dance once again as a tool for promoting change and civil rights; the performance "made you feel you must do something" about injustice (Hill 358).

Because she thought it was central to societal connection, Katherine Dunham struggled to bring the predominately black population in East St. Louis the arts. "From the outset, Dunham's aim was to lessen social isolation and disunity in her adopted city" (Aschenbrenner 185). Dance, noted for its ability to transcend language boundaries thereby expressing what worlds cannot brings groups of people together united for a common goal (Dunham 510). Dance promotes unity in a society and leads to societal awareness, communication, and cooperation (Dunham 542). In poverty stricken cities like East St. Louis, a sense of community becomes hard to maintain when everyone feels forced to fend for themselves. By strengthening social unity in the community Katherine Dunham opened up opportunities for the people in the city to help each other which in turn helped the city as a whole become more stable and self sufficient. Katherine Dunham created these opportunities for cooperation and for people to get to know each other by bringing the society together for a common cause: dance and the arts.

Dunham's contribution to the arts in the city also became important to East St. Louis because it provided a creative and healthy outlet for the youth of the city and taught them about their African heritage. Joyce Aschenbrenner, writes in her book, Katherine Dunham: Dancing A Life, when Katherine Dunham came to the city "she was shocked by the open expression of anger and frustration by the young people…" (Aschenbrenner 173). Unlike herself, the youth of East St. Louis had little knowledge of their African heritage and Dunham believed that gap in knowledge to be part of the cause of the violent and hopeless behavior (Aschenbrenner 174). She immediately began work on the Performing Arts Training Center, where young people's aggression or pent up emotions could be expressed through healthy means such as dance and martial arts and where they could learn about their unique heritage. Dunham said that, "As an anthropologist and a humanist I felt that I could give something, make individuals aware of themselves, their environment, and create a desire to be alive" (Mazer 425). When Katherine Dunham taught, in order for her students to truly dance in her eyes, they had to know where the movements came from and have a historical knowledge of the dance because she believed, "it is an affirmation of self and of one's culture" (Hill 358). Dunham's technique simultaneously taught the deprived youth of the city about their rich African American heritage (which Dunham believed to be essential to their growth and survival) helped them release aggression and work through difficult emotions through healthy psychical activity (Aschenbrenner 174).

In order to fully bring East St. Louis the artistic opportunities she believed to be essential to a full life and connected community, she founded the Performing Arts Training Center or PATC in East St. Louis in 1967 "as part of the SIU experiment in higher education" (Aschenbrenner 176). The PATC provides credit and non-credit classes for the youth of East St. Louis in the performing arts such as dance, martial arts, and crafts, and also provides academic studies such as anthropology, philosophy, history, and literature (Dunham 555). The PATC brought in great performers and scholars from all around the world to teach the students. Even some professional dancers from Dunham's former dance company came often to visit and teach as well. The Center focuses on arousing curiosity in its students, preparing them for higher education, or further developing their artistic skills. Many of the students who took classes at the Center went on to become professional dancers, actors, percussionists, and some even formed a traveling company to display their skills (Redmond 558).

Dunham became one of the few who connected and identified with the dangerous gangsters in East St. Louis, and worked to give them more constructive alternatives to violence, to create a better life for themselves, give them hope for the future, and create their own social identity (Aschenbrenner 179). Several times, because of her work with militant young adults in the 60's, Katherine Dunham received various threats on her life (Beckford 95). The authorities in East St. Louis became alarmed when Dunham succeeded in reaching the young people by identifying with their causes and asked her to leave, claiming her life may be in danger. Dunham responded by saying " 'That's the wrong thing to say to me,' she told the president of the university. 'Now I'll never leave' " (Aschenbrenner 177). "It was her ability to understand the young people and to start from where they were that helped her build a successful program in the city" and enabled her to make such a dramatic difference in children and teens lives (Aschenbrenner 185). Braving the danger, Katherine Dunham even approached the most feared gang in the city called "the Warlords" in their own meeting place and presented them with the opportunity to take classes in dance, martial arts, and congo drumming at the PATC. At first the gang treated her with hostility, but they soon recognized her genuine desire to help and began taking classes at the PATC, and later offered her their protection ( Beckford 96). She invited the militants to various school and city matters, and walked the streets with young people who police supposedly had orders to shoot on sight (Beckford 96). Any average citizen never would have dared to get as close to gang members as Dunham did, but she cared about all the people in the city and she knew that the gang members and militant young adults needed the opportunities provided at the PATC just as much as any other person in East St. Louis, if not more.

The Katherine Dunham Museum opened in East St. Louis with the intention of further educating the people about the beauty of their African American heritage and introducing everyone to African and Caribbean culture. In October, 1967, the first exhibit showcased in Alton, Illinois. After numerous relocations and fundraising, the museum finally found its current home in East St. Louis in 1969 (Stovall 568-9). The museum began as a collection of treasures from Dunham's travels including many West African wood carvings and Caribbean artifacts (Stovall 568). The museum collection has expanded and received numerous donations since its opening in October 1967 and now includes furniture, paintings, musical instruments, colorful tribal costumes, decorations, photographs, sketches, and personal belongings of Katherine Dunham herself. There are also collections of books and videos related to Katherine Dunham, African culture, dance, and the humanities (Stovall 569). The artifacts in the Museum are not just for display like traditional museums, the instruments may be played and the costumes worn. The museum serves as a living display of cultures that visitors can explore, learn from, and discuss no matter what color or ethnicity they are. The museum encourages pride in the locals of East St. Louis because of the earthy beauty and good quality of the artifacts, and because it is a museum that celebrates African heritage and the cultures related to it.

After her vision of the PATC dimmed because of financial and political obstacles, Katherine Dunham founded the Children's Workshop so children in the area would still have healthy place to learn, grow, and be psychically and intellectually challenged. The Children's Workshop opened in 1969 and like the PATC, offered classes in the arts such as dance and percussion so children could strengthen their bodies. The children perform at local events, in schools, and travel to other states. They make their own money by holding fundraisers, giving performances, and selling T-shirts and sweatshirts in order to travel and perform. The Children's Workshop offers classes in academic areas as well with an emphasis on African and Caribbean cultures (Aschenbrenner 200). People come and speak about different cultures so the children have the opportunity to be exposed to other ways of thinking and learn about the worlds outside of East St. Louis. The teachers assign essays and homework on a variety of topics, from the function of the muscles and the tendons, African and other cultures, and Katherine Dunham. Parents found the children who previously did not read or do homework in school went to the library to check out books for their reports in their classes in the Children's Workshop (Aschenbrenner 202). Children and teenagers found that learning could be enjoyable and their grades in public school improved because of their involvement in the Children's Workshop (Aschenbrenner 189).

In a city as financially troubled as East St. Louis, Dunham found it difficult to fund and maintain her projects after she retired from SIUE and no longer received their financial support. Previously the SIUE experiment in higher education funded the PATC and paid the teachers and assistants so the classes could be offered to the people of East St. Louis. After Dunham retired from the University, she looked for funding on the local and state levels, however, the citizens of East St. Louis and the city did not and do not have much money to offer. She looked to fundraisers, banquets, and workshops to raise money but it became harder and harder to keep the center running as it did in its glory days. The PATC slowly lost the proper amount of money needed to keep it functioning fully and "became a shadow of its former self" says Joyce Aschenbrenner (Aschenbrenner 196). The Museum also fell on hard financial times in the 1990's and utilities had to be turned off. Representative Wyvetter Younge of East St. Louis helped the museum obtain grants and the Casino Queen and the power company offered their assistance which helped the museum pay off its debts, repair the plumbing, and install a new burglar alarm. (Aschenbrenner 198). Katherine Dunham too, in the last years of her life, fell on hard times financially. She accumulated increasing medical expenses and her house became so rundown, says an article in the Los Angeles Sentinel, "that pigeons nearly pecked through the ceiling" ("Katherine…"). The people of East St. Louis, when they learned of her plight, worked hard to support her and paid to repair her house, showing the deep sense of community the people of the city have developed. Even after all she did in her career for East St. Louis and its people; in the end the same financial problems that affect the city attacked her projects and visions for the future, but just as the city fights to survive, so does the PACT, the Katherine Dunham Museum, and the Children's Workshop.

Because of her concern for the continued survival of her adopted city, she approached Buckminster fuller, a brilliant philosopher and innovator, known for his geodesic dome, to help solve the economic and housing problems of East St. Louis. Fuller designed the Old Man River's City, its name taken from the song sung by Paul Robenson about the life of African Americans who lived on the banks of the Mississippi (Fuller 315). The design, described in his book Critical Path, included a crater like basin, which would accommodate all community activities such as businesses, schools, and recreation, while the outside slopes of the basin would house individual homes for families (Fuller 316-17). Over the city Fuller designed a massive geodesic dome to cover the city from rain and snow, but transparent enough to allow life sustaining sun rays to penetrate. The dome keeps the atmosphere inside the city a fairly constant temperature, increasing energy conservation (Fuller 320). Katherine Dunham fully supported Fuller's revolutionary design along with others who saw "East St. Louis as the future hub of economic and cultural development on the east side of the Mississippi" (Aschenbrenner 176). Although the project did receive support from many of the members of the community, some worried that the dome had been designed to keep the city isolated from the rest of society and became threatened by the idea of being contained. Many developmental plans have been looked at since then, but none have included Fuller's geodesic dome (Aschenbrenner 176).

People outside the city often call upon the people of East St. Louis to remember the contributions Katherine Dunham has made to the city and take decisive action to ensure that her projects transcend her, however, in a city with little funds to spare for such projects, the future remains unpredictable ("Katherine…"). The efforts of the people and the community work to ensure that small programs of the PATC and the Children's Workshop still function in East St. Louis and in other cities in the United States so children have the opportunity to learn about Katherine Dunham and practice her technique. Her projects, even though she is not there to teach them, still give children in East St. Louis hope for the future and an opportunity to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Katherine Dunham chose East St. Louis because she knew she could help the youth of the area and give them alternatives to violence and hope for the future. She could have moved her workshops and museum to other more financially stable cities where she would have had more opportunities, but the dire need of the youth of East St. Louis for some guidance, guidance she knew she could give, made her stay in the city even though it would mean tough times ahead. Today her projects are fighting to stay open and pay for the necessities, but it's worth it. Even if there is only one loving mentor in the PATC or Children's workshop functioning today, it's still enough to change children's lives. Just knowing that at least one person cares about them in a world filled with broken buildings and day to day survival can give a person enough hope to strive for and change the future.

Works Cited

Aschenbrenner, Joyce. Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Beckford, Ruth. Katherine Dunham, A Biography. New York, NY. Marcel Kekker, INC, 1979.

Clark, VéVé A, and Sara E. Johnson, eds. Kaiso! Writings by and About Katherine Dunham. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

Dunham, Katherine. "An Anthropological Approach to Dance." in Clark and Johnson 508-513.

Dunham, Katherine. "Dance as a Cultural Art and its role in Development." in Clark and Johnson 540-547.

Dunham, Katherine. "Performing Arts Training Center as a Focal Point for a New and Unique College or School." in Clark and Johnson 551-556.

Feeney, Mark. "Obituary Katherine Dunham; modern-dance icon broke color barrier." The San Diego Union-Tribune 28 May. 2006: 4 May. 2009 < >

Fuller, Buckminster. Critical Path. New York, NY. St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Hill, Constance. "Katherine Dunham's Southland." in Clark and Johnson 345-363.

"Katherine Dunham's Dream Deferred: Again Dance Pioneer Struggles to Hold On to Her Vision for East St. Louis." Los Angeles Sentinel 24 Aug. 1995: A17.

Manning, Susan. "Watching Dunham's Dances, 1937-1945." in Clark and Johnson 256-266.

Mazer, Gwen. "Katherine Dunham." in Clark and Johnson 419-426.

Redmond, Eugene. "Cultural Fusion and Spiritual Unity." Clark and Johnson 557-563.

Stovall, Jeanelle. "Katherine Dunham Museum." Clark and Johnson 568-571.

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