By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)
Katherine Dunham validated African Americans as performers and brought their cultural heritage to the concert and Broadway stage; along the way she sought to break down racial barriers off stage as well, in addition to codifying her own dance technique.
She said, “I was very curious. I loved anthropology and it didn’t take me long to know that there was something missing in the concert and theatrical presentations of American black people, and there was a whole culture being overlooked.” The Chicago native was raised on Ballet, Modern, and Eastern Dance forms and studied Caribbean forms as a college student.
According to Joshua Legg, “Dunham built a training system that integrated the traditional material she observed in cultural context (both in the Caribbean and in urban areas in the United States) with ballet and other forms she had studied.”
Dunham technique relies on complex polyrhythms and develops dancers who are strong, flexible, and musically attuned. Ideally, classes are accompanied by a live drummer. There is a codified progression to the technique; classes begin with barre work that includes breathing exercises, press-ins, and flatbacks. Center work features isolations and other movements that feature Dunham’s unique fusion of Afro-Caribbean and balletic aesthetics. Classes culminate with a choreographed combination.
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