Katherine Dunham (1909-2006), born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, has been cast as an artist with a double identity. On the one hand, she was “Katherine the Great,” the charismatic and technically precise Broadway and Hollywood dancer who appeared in Cabin in the Sky (1940), Stormy Weather (1943), and other popular black musicals. On the other hand, she was what Gregory S. Jackson calls “a pioneering dance anthropologist of world renown,” translating indigenous Caribbean dances into modern theatrical forms for her long-lived Katherine Dunham School of Dance, a crucial inspiration for Alvin Ailey, among others. According to dance critic Arthur Todd, Dunham integrated “a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement—a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving”—with classic ballet and modern European techniques. Dunham had a third artistic identity as well, however, one that drew on her Ph.D. in anthropology and her distinctive blend of choreography and ethnological research. Beginning in the 1940s, she wrote a string of scholarly and imaginative books dealing with the Maroons of Jamaica (Journey to Accompong ); her childhood in Illinois (A Touch of Innocence ); her dreams of Africa (Kasamance: A Fantasy ); and the meaning of Haitian dance (the definitive Dances of Haiti ). Always an outspoken activist, she opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis in 1967, a Black Arts-style project to defeat material poverty through artistic expression. The FBI kept tabs on Dunham from 1944 to 1968, complicating her international travels. Walter Winchell, the creator of the modern gossip column, telegrammed FBI headquarters in 1948 with a prurient tease about Dunham’s School of Dance: “You’d be gee-whizzed at the after-hour orgies that take place thrice weekly at one of [New York’s] most famous interpretive dance studios.”
FBI documents studying Katherine Dunham.
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