Katherine Mary Dunham: The Queen Mother of Black Dance

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Katherine Dunham was an African-American dancer, choreographer. A Chicago superstar in the world of dance, called the “Matriarch” and “Queen Mother of Black Dance.”

Born Glen Ellyn in Illinois. Katherine was well known for bringing African and Caribbean influences into the European-dominated dance world.

A highly trained and respected anthropologist who graduated from the University of Chicago in 1935, Katherine was a national treasure. As an anthropology student at the University of Chicago in 1935, she took her first trip to Haiti on a fellowship to study Caribbean culture and dance. That experience would wield a lasting influence on her life, encouraging her in honing that talent to become a superstar

During her career, she choreographed “Aida” in 1963 becoming the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. She also did choreography work for such musicals as “Cabin in the Sky”. She appeared in several films including “Stormy Weather” in 1943 with Lena Horne and Bill Robinson and “Carnival of Rhythm”. She was also influential to such entertainers as Harry Belafonte and Eartha Kitt. A passionate civil rights activist, she refused to perform at segregated theaters.

Katherine had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the 20th century.

In the 1940s, 50s and 60s she was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America as La Grande Katherine, and the Washington Post called her “Katherine the Great.” The Katherine Dunham troupe appeared in numerous Hollywood films.

For more than 30 years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only permanent, self-subsidized American black dance troupe at that time, and over her long career she choreographed more than 90 individual dances.

In 1989, Dunham was awarded the most prestigious artistic award, “The National Medal of Arts” at a White House ceremony.  After an illustrious career which spanned many decades and had great positive impact in the lives of a whole lot of people and beyond America, Katherine Dunham died in her sleep in New York City on May 21, 2006 at the age of 97.


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