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Legacy Of Katherine Dunham In Danger In East St. Louis


When Katherine Dunham - world dancer, former professor, and part-time East St. Louis resident - died in 2006, she made it a point to make sure that her legacy was remembered. She held workshops and gave personal instruction to other dancers on how to perform her flamboyant, graceful, Africa-influenced Dunham Technique; she wrote books, gave talks, and did interviews at length on overcoming racism and 

Credit Alfredo Valente / Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Katherine Dunham, 1943. The dancer and cultural anthropologist was an Artist In Resident at Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville and became a resident and patron of the city. The museum that bears her name and artifacts is located in the Olivette Park neighborhood of East St. Louis

  discrimination while traveling the world with her troupe, the Katherine Dunham Company; and, most importantly, she oversaw the day-to-day operations of the Katherine Dunham Museum in East St. Louis, housed just across the street from the three homes she owned and occupied during her time in Illinois.

Unfortunately, memories can’t make money. And that’s what you need in order to run a museum.

Though the museum receives grants from time to time, there’s no trust or steady income, visits are by appointment only, and paying members of the museum are few. In fact, if you call the number listed on the website to book a tour, you get the cell phone of Laverne Backstrom, board president of the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities - and tour guide for the museum. Unlike the lights and the phone line at the museum, she can guarantee that her phone won’t be turned off.

“I think that her plan was by continuing to certify instructors, she then had these persons understand that they were more than dancers, that they were perpetuating a way of life, and it was the way that she thought that life ought to be lived,” says Backstrom, a retired schoolteacher.

Ideally, Dunham envisioned the museum as a bastion for artist to dance, make music, and learn about other cultures – and for the most part, that’s still happening.  The studio located in the backyard still serves as a place for instruction and weekly classes, and there’s still a yearly intensive held at Wash U every summer. If she were ever in financial trouble, Dunham could quickly call on friends like Harry Belafonte to help her cover costs. Her daughter, Marie-Christine, lives in France and leaves the day-to-day operations of the Museum in East St. Louis to the Board.

“You’re always subject to losing all of it. But you don’t think about that on a day to day basis. You continue to think where the next grant is going to come from or where the next resource might be,” says Backstrom. “I’m not going to be very effective screaming and yelling by myself that this is what needs to happen.”

A Dream Stripped Down

Andrew Theising is the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where Dunham was an artist-in-residence for a time. He’s in awe of the museum’s exterior, a mansion once owned by a judge.

“There’s no cracks in the bricks, and the windows are all in place, the chimneys are all straight like they should be. It needs some work here and there, but by and large it’s a wonderful structure,” he says,

But a walkthrough of the three Dunham homes just two blocks away reveals a different story. They were sold to Dunham several years ago with intentions to further her dance mission, but now sit vacant and vandalized on a trash and weed-filled property.

A key isn’t needed to get in.

“The idea was that that could be a place for a dance troupe that was moving from across the country or around the world – they could stop and they could perform and work with students, and they could move on to their next destination. So that was the vision back in 1970, but the reality is obviously something very different,” says Theising.

The home looks like a specially crafted tornado hit it – stripped for copper, there are gaping holes in the ceiling and floor, busted windows, and overturned furniture in the first home, which was used as Ms. Dunham ’s residence when she stayed in the city.  The two residences next door are in a similarly disheveled state.

“It’s hard to come to a place like this and not ask why – why would this happen? Why would people treat something so disrespectfully – particularly something that has Ms. Dunham’s name attached to it.”

Feeling Out The Future

Though the properties are in a seemingly unimaginable state, Theising is hopeful that they will one day be restored, and Laverne Backstrom is quick to reiterate that East St. Louis remained a large part Ms. Dunham’s storied life for a reason.

“We teach Dunham Technique all over the United States. We’re hoping that some young person is going to catch fire and want to perpetuate the legacy that Ms. Dunham left in East St. Louis. And I say it all the time – she could have left it anywhere in the world, but she chose East St. Louis.”

The studio located in the backyard still serves as a place for instruction and regular classes. This summer, a group of visiting students paid a visit to Dunham’s vacant homes, and after seeing their sad shape, cleaned out one of the basements. Backstrom is planning to have the artifacts that were recovered cleaned and catalogued.

In the spirit of all creative pursuits at one point or another, the funds might be low, but the hopes are always high.