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‘A way of life:’ Remembering dance legend Katherine Dunham, who made her home in East St. Louis

Detail of Katherine Dunham in Choros, undated
Missouri History Museum | Provided
Katherine Dunham is a dance legend who made her home in East St. Louis. She was also groundbreaking in other ways. On Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air, contributor Geri Mitchell spoke with an author and two colleagues of Dunham's about her legacy.

If you took but one class with dance legend Katherine Dunham, it became immediately apparent that her approach was one that cultivated the dancer as a whole and made the Dunham Technique more of a “way of life.” Dunham, considered the “queen mother of black dance,” lived from 1909 to 2006, making her home and the center of her dance work in East St. Louis for much of her adult life. 

Her life, impact on the dance world and scholarship around the African diaspora, is the subject of a new book from Joanna Dee Das, a St. Louis author and Washington University professor of dance. It is called “Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora.”

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Das joined contributor Geri Mitchell alongside Anne Walker, a dancer who worked alongside Katherine Dunham and teaches her technique, as well as Keith Tyrone Williams, a dancer who learned from Dunham and now teaches her technique.

Das and Williams will be at Left Bank Books on Wednesday at 7 p.m. to discuss the book. Das said she felt compelled to write the book because she felt people outside the dance community didn’t understand the depth of her importance in shaping both the dance community and the black freedom struggle of the 20th century.

“Ms. Dunham was one of the major intellectuals of the 20th century who helped bring together this idea of the African diaspora as a political and cultural community,” Das said. “Through her shows, her performances, through her scholarship and education model, she showed how people of African descent around the world were connected culturally and therefore could unify politically.”

While Williams first took classes under Dunham in high school, he said he did not fully understand the impact of her work until college, while he was studying at the University of Illinois. Taking a Dunham Technique class back home in East St. Louis one weekend so fundamentally changed him that he transferred to SIUE to continue to study the technique.

"When she came into the room, people paid homage, almost reverence to a mother, to a queen."

“There was an aura and a spirit in the room that you knew was special and you knew what you had been learning was connected to this individual [Katherine Dunham] with a breath of vision and belief in her people — particularly that she’d chose East St. Louis to settle down in,” Williams said. "When she came into the room, people paid homage, almost reverence to a mother, to a queen. I looked and I followed suit. It just felt right in the spirit.”

Walker, who performed with Dunham, said her mystique did not hit her until several years of studying and dancing with her. Although she was warm and connected with all sorts of people, she had a way of looking you in the eyes and making sure you knew you had to do better work.

Scholarship and the creation of the Dunham Technique

Dunham was a scholar, first studying with the University of Chicago Anthropology department and then traveling across the globe, including the Caribbean and Europe, to study dance steps on prestigious fellowships.

“She went for a year to the Caribbean and originally went to mine dance steps,” Das said. “When she was there, she discovered more than just steps, she discovered a whole way of understanding dance as a holistic life and community. She wanted to bring back not just the steps, but also the ethos. She found a way to portray that on stage, which is not easy.”

Joanna Dee Das, Keith Tyrone Williams and Anne Walker discussed Katherine Dunham's legacy on St. Louis on the Air with Geri Mitchell.
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Joanna Dee Das, Keith Tyrone Williams and Anne Walker discussed Katherine Dunham's legacy on St. Louis on the Air with Geri Mitchell.

Walker described the Dunham Technique as a “way of life.” It was more than just flexing feet and kicks and shoulder and pelvic movements, the technique encompassed work of the spirit.

“I remember a seminar she gave and it started with energy fields,” Walker said. “It goes from your feet to the top of your head. It is such a complete study of the body and the mind. And then how that particular body and mind interacts with other people … that’s when it becomes a dance.”

Williams said he thought of the technique as a trilogy, combining work of the body, mind and spirit.

“While Dunham Technique is a codified technique, a set of structured patterns and movements that are designed to employ the dancer and provide the dancer with a knowledge of the body and connect it with its original purpose, there is a purpose for movement,” Williams said. “Along with the technique, it is also developing the whole individual. That’s what separates it from other techniques.”

Because of this emphasis on the development of the whole individual, Dunham was a believer that the dance style was one that appealed to all races.

“It could be used for all people, including any professional dancer and non-professional dancers,” Das said. “Her schools were always training both at the same time.”

The private life of Katherine Dunham and racism she encountered

While Dunham was breaking social and racial barrier with her dance, she also led a very passionate personal life, which the book goes into detail about.

“She loved many people,” Das said. “She was dedicated to her husband, John Pratt. Their relationship was an artistic and creative one as well. She was able to form special connections with many different people. She had incredible emotional intelligence and could find connections with many people. That’s part of what made her a genius. How can you show emotion on stage if you don’t have the ability to find those connections?”

Another point to note is that John Pratt was white. And interracial marriage was not fully legal in the United States until 1967. The two tried to legally marry in California, Mexico and Las Vegas during the 1950s, but it is unclear if the two were ever legally wed.

Another way Dunham experienced racism was in critique of her work.

"[The Dunham Technique] goes from your feet to the top of your head. It is such a complete study of the body and the mind. And then how that particular body and mind interacts with other people, that's when it becomes a dance."

“In the 1940s, this is where racism comes back in, when white American choreographers were headed toward abstract expressionism and modern dance,” Das said. “That was thought of as high art. Dunham was bringing this dance theater to stages and audiences loved it but she didn’t always get the critical acclaim she deserved, because of this lens people were viewing her performances through.”

Walker contends, however, that Dunham’s style of dance is one that is important to the development of us all.

“When you say the African diaspora, well, when I gave tours at the Katherine Dunham Museum, I tried to impress on people that we are all from the African diaspora,” Walker said. “We’re all spokes on the wheel and the African diaspora is the hub. We have to look at that when we talk about unity in this country, for all of us to understand where we came from.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.