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'Beyond the Dance' honors the life of the late Katherine Dunham

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 2, 2008 - Katherine Dunham was a 20th century renaissance woman. Although she's known primarily for her contributions to the world of dance, she was also a humanist. She diligently studied the human condition and worked for social justice and civil rights. This aspect of her life is celebrated at the Missouri History Museum's exhibit - "Katherine Dunham: Beyond the Dance" that runs through Nov. 8, 2009.

A large video screen displaying vintage film of Dunham teaching also greets you. Given that  professional dancers often begin each day with class, such a beginning is particularly appropriate. The film illustrates the physicality of the "Dunham Technique" and introduces visitors to the dance movement she developed during her career. In all, more than 15 minutes of dance footage can be found in the exhibit.

As a child, Dunham suffered from rheumatic fever and arthritis in her knees. She said she danced because it forced her to keep moving. She was an avid scrapbook keeper who collected performance reviews, tour announcements, and stories about civil rights and public health.

"Beyond the Dance" gives us a glimpse into her personal life. She married John Pratt, a renowned theatrical set and costume designer. Indeed, the 37 costumes on display are the heart and soul of the exhibit. The gold mannequins denote which costumes Dunham wore.

Not only her life partner, Pratt was also her creative partner. During the 1940s and '50s, they traveled the world searching for the roots of Afro-American culture, while presenting their interpretation of it on stage. And the personal devotion is displayed in a love letter from Dunham to Pratt from the mid-'80s. It shows the depth of her admiration more than four decades into their marriage.

Dunham came to international prominence during the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Professionally, she seemingly did it all.

She's also credited for many firsts.

  • She established the first African American ballet school.
  • She was the first artist to take "black" dance to Europe.
  • She was the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera.

She published books, danced on Broadway (Cabin in the Sky, Carib Song, Windy City & Choros), and on the silver screen (Carnival of Rhythm, Pardon My Sarong, Stormy Weather).

As a choreographer, she created 90 dances and established several dance schools that incorporated cultural studies and logic into the curriculum. She felt that, to be a well-rounded dancer, one needed to be a well-rounded human. Some of her students included Marion Brando, James Dean and Eartha Kitt.

Dunham said her education came in three phases: the University of Chicago, the world and East St. Louis. In East St. Louis, she opened the Performing Arts and Training Center in an effort to combat poverty and urban unrest. It was also where the centerpiece of the exhibit was found.

Rescued from a damp basement and beautifully restored is the backdrop for a dance called, "Rites De Passage." This production was an extension of Dunham's personal philosophy and was created to show human universals and the shared aspects of the human experience in all cultures.

"Ms. Dunham was a pioneer not only in her moving expression but in seeing the power of dance as a way of bringing people together and learning from one another," says Michael Uthoff, artistic director of Dance Saint Louis.

"Katherine Dunham: Beyond the Dance" brings us closer to an artist who had many layers and interests. We find writings and artwork from her personal collection, photos from her experiences in Haiti, and masks from her anthropology collection.

Her work ushered in the era of sensuality. She considered her personal contribution to dance as "the liberation of the pelvis." Moreover, she opened the door for subsequent African American dance companies and inspired generations with a mantra that says, nothing is impossible.

Dunham lived a long and celebrated life. She died in the spring of 2006 at age 96.

Christian Cudnik is an Emmy award winning producer based in St. Louis. 

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