Meet Katherine Dunham: The Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance

by | Feb 1, 2023

The world of ballet is replete with amazing Black dancers who have forever changed the art form. Today we highlight the unstoppable Katherine Dunham – dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist who has been called the “matriarch and queen mother of Black dance.”

Dunham was born in 1909 in Chicago to a father who was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar, and a mother who possessed Indian, French Canadian, English, and African ancestry. Dunham became best known for incorporating African American, Caribbean, African, and South American movement styles and themes into her ballets. In 1931, at the age of 21, Dunham formed a group called Ballets Nègres, which, despite the company’s short lifespan, was noteworthy as being one of the first Black ballet companies to ever exist in the United States.  

Dunham earned a degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, additionally asking the Rosenwald Foundation for funding to take a trip to study the dance traditions of the Caribbean. When asked by the committee about the focus of her research, she simply asked, “Do you mind if I just show you?” She then slipped off her woolen suit to reveal a leotard and flowing dance skirt, demonstrating ballet first, then a traditional dance “of Africa.” After her impromptu performance, the committee unanimously agreed to provide the requested funding. 

The subsequent books she wrote from this trip are still recognized today as pioneering steps toward the now-recognized sub-discipline of dance anthropology. Beyond this influential academic research, these experiences in the Caribbean deeply influenced Dunham’s own artistic style and approach to dance. After returning to the United States, Dunham embarked on a long dance career complete with her own companies and dance schools, performing on Broadway and in Hollywood films (including co-choreographing with George Balanchine for the all-African America cast production and then film, Cabin in the Sky), and developing the Dunham technique – a codified technical dance form developed from elements of indigenous African and Afro-Caribbean dances. 

Alvin Ailey said in a joint interview with Katherine Dunham, “When I first got involved in dance in 1949 there was nobody around, I didn’t see anybody around, as a role model. It was not until the Dunham company came through that I knew that Black people could do this kind of thing. That Black material, from Africa, from the Caribbean, from America itself, could be presented with elegance and style and class and also say something about our history.”

 This summary barely scratches the surface of the amazing work Katherine Dunham created during her lifetime, so use the links below to learn more about her and about Black ballet history.


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Alanna Love is a writer based out of Boise, Idaho. She revels in tracing the thread of beauty woven throughout daily life, especially when it is found in ballet, literature, or historical wardrobing.


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