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Katherine Dunham’s Namesake Nonprofit Hasn’t Lost Its Vision For East St. Louis

All too often, artistic expression proves inaccessible to everyday people, a kind of luxury out of reach for those struggling to make ends meet. Katherine Dunham understood this reality when she first turned her attention to East St. Louis in the 1960s. And so does Leverne Backstrom, one of a handful of dedicated community members still carrying on the world-renowned dancer and choreographer’s legacy there today.

072920_providedbyRFTillustrationbyEvanSult_DancerDrawing
Evan Sult | Riverfront Times
The struggle to carry on Katherine Dunham’s legacy in East St. Louis is the focus of a recent Riverfront Times feature written by Eric Berger and illustrated by Evan Sult.

Backstrom is president of the board of directors for the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, which has long prided itself on offering dance workshops and other programming regardless of participants’ ability to pay. The volunteer-powered organization also oversees a museum full of artifacts from all over the world.

But these cultural riches in East St. Louis stand in contrast to the challenges the organization has faced in recent decades. Backstrom says many people are surprised to learn that the organization still exists.

These days, she’s on a mission to change that, and a recent Riverfront Times feature by Eric Berger details the ongoing struggle to reinvigorate the work originally envisioned by Dunham, who died in 2006.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Backstrom, who moved to East St. Louis as a teenager in 1960. A resident ever since, she now lives just down the street from the nonprofit she oversees.

Has the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities touched your life? How? Tweet us (@STLonAir), send an email to talk@stlpublicradio.org or share your thoughts via our St. Louis on the Air Facebook group.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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