Dunham turned anthropology into artistry

Field work in Caribbean inspired pioneering dance career of Katherine Dunham, PhB'36

Editor’s note: This story is adapted from Winter 2016 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine. Read it in its entirety here.

As an undergraduate, Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, once attended a lecture by Prof. Robert Redfield, whose anthropological research in Mexico focused on acculturation.

Redfield suggested that black Americans had preserved African traditions in popular dances such as the lindy and the cakewalk. Dunham was struck by an intriguing possibility: What if African traditions in the New World were even better preserved in the dances of Afro-Caribbeans?

It was an insight that would guide her unique career.

During the 1930s, while an undergrad, Dunham traveled alone to the Caribbean to research dance traditions that slaves had brought from Africa. She adapted what she learned into choreography for her company—the nation’s first self-supporting black dance troupe, which performed in the United States and 57 other countries. At a time when black culture was widely devalued, Dunham pointed to a rich cultural tradition that had not been crushed out by slavery.

“Had she been only scholastic in ability, she would simply have become an exponent of West Indian folklore,” a writer from the London Observer noted in 1948. “Had she only been after fame and money,” she could have opted for Broadway and Hollywood, “but Katherine Dunham is a young woman of great independence, and she chose her own course.”

Combining dance and anthropology

There are countless anecdotes about Katherine Dunham’s triumphs. At her 1934 interview with the Rosenwald Foundation, she wasn’t sure whether to present herself as an anthropologist or a dancer.

Asked about her proposed research, she suddenly decided: “Do you mind if I just show you?” As the astonished committee stared, Dunham slipped off her woolen suit to reveal a leotard and flowing dance skirt. She demonstrated ballet first, then pulsing African dance.

The committee voted unanimously to award $2,400 (more than $40,000 in today’s money) to support her fieldwork in the Caribbean. At the recommendation of her mentor Melville Herskovits, PhB’20—a Northwestern University anthropologist and African studies expert—Dunham’s calling cards read both “dancer” and “anthropologist.”

In Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti, Dunham “would rent a native hut…and patiently await an occasion to dance,” she recalled. “For a long time I was merely a happy participant in every dance I could manage to get to…Then my academic training got the better of me.”

Dunham was awarded a PhB in 1936, becoming one of the first African Americans to earn a degree in anthropology. Her UChicago master’s thesis, “The Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form, and Function,” was accepted but she never completed her course work. Dancing demanded too much of her time. (Her thesis was first published as “Las danzas de Haiti,” in Spanish and English, in 1947. A French translation, with a forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and revised English editions followed.)

Unsure which career to choose, she consulted Redfield, who suggested, “Why not pursue both?” During the decades she toured with her company, Dunham continued to publish books and give lectures. Still, she felt guilty that a dance career wasn’t a dignified occupation for a research anthropologist. 

‘Daring’ performer

Dunham was amused by the critics’ response to her unusual background. “I find myself referred to, and on the very same day, both as ‘the hottest thing on Broadway’ and ‘an intelligent, sensitive young woman … an anthropologist of note,’” she wrote in her autobiographical essay “Thesis Turned Broadway.” It was a theme that continued in headlines throughout her career, scholar Constance Valis Hill has pointed out: “‘Schoolmarm Turned Siren,’ ‘Torridity to Anthropology,’ ‘Cool Scientist or Sultry Performer?’ and ‘High Priestess of Jive.’”

Dunham and her dancers appeared in Hollywood films, most famously Stormy Weather(1943). They performed on television, the first hourlong dance program on CBS. And the company—35 to 50 dancers and musicians—toured incessantly from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, performing in both theaters and nightclubs. The company’s final performance was at the Apollo, the famed vaudeville house in Harlem.

Dunham’s “shrewd mix of show business, art, and anthropology,” as one critic described it, made this financially possible. The sensuousness of certain pieces—especially those performed in nightclubs—helped. “What I did onstage was considered daring,” Dunham once said. “Being on stage was, for me, making love. It was an expression of my love of humanity and things of beauty.”

As she traveled the world, Dunham continued to study the dance forms of other cultures. She integrated these disparate traditions into her own dance technique, Dunham Technique, as well as her choreography.

From a contemporary perspective, Dunham’s research-to-performance method can be seen as “a radical reimagining of what anthropology might be,” writes Elizabeth Chin, editor of Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures (School for Advanced Research Press, 2014).

The fact that she pursued “performative anthropology,” Chin writes, rather than a traditional academic career, perhaps also explains why her contributions have been unacknowledged for far too long.