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Discussion Questions - Katherine Dunham


Katherine Dunham

According to Joyce Aschenbrenner in Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life, when Katherine Dunham first arrived in East St. Louis she was "shocked by the open expression of anger and frustration by the young people in East St. Louis…" She found that the youth in East St. Louis yearned for "some kind of hope and social identity" and knew little or nothing about their rich African American heritage, which Dunham believed to be key to a person's survival. Katherine Dunham focused on helping and educating the youth in East St. Louis. She related to and gained the trust of many young gang members and politically active youth often risking her own safety in the process and tried to encourage constructive behavior. She built the Performing Arts Training Center in order to provide a physical, emotional, and cultural outlet for the children of the community. The older members of society only halfheartedly supported her because she was an outsider and did not bother to join any of their social groups, but she did not care about what the older generation thought of her because her priority was the children of East St. Louis. Why did she focus only on the youth of East St. Louis in her efforts to revitalize the decaying city? Do you think it would have been beneficial for her to have tried to gain the support of the older generations as well or would this have hindered her ability to create the changes she wanted to make in East St. Louis? (Baltzell, Cassandra)

A world famous dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham could have resided in any city and taught dance lessons to children of those with wealth and position. Instead, she decided to call the city of East St. Louis home, a place with a reputation and full of misguided youth. After becoming an artist in residence at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Dunham began to explore the possibility of building an arts center to help the troubled youth of East St. Louis to focus their energies into more positive outlets. She was successful as she gained the trust of young gang members. What did Dunham provide to the youth of East St. Louis that no other establishments did? What techniques did Dunham use to change of the lives of children on the East Side? Dunham not only taught dance, but gave young people a sense of identity and belonging. How did she do this? What is the lasting impact of Dunham's legacy on East St. Louis? (Poehler, Allison)

Katherine Dunham worked on the behalf on East St. Louis to fight poverty and injustice, while increasing children's appreciation for dance, even though she did not hail from East St. Louis and with her high social status as an acclaimed dancer, had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world. What drew Katherine Dunham to East St. Louis? If her goal was to fight poverty and injustice, why did she choose East St. Louis over other U.S. inner cities or developing countries worldwide? (Paluska, Maia)

Katherine Dunham was famous for her involvement in East St. Louis. Through her dance she sought to challenge the political and social barriers that prevented African Americans from achieving their goals. Eugene Redmond claims that "'She stood in and outside or art, in and outside or social structure, in and outside of [academics], in and outside of gender'" (quoted in Aschenbrenner 195). How does someone like Dunham use dance to create change in the community? How does she influence others using a form of art that many would argue is not as prevalent or provocative as music or painting? (Mikkelson, Lauren)

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