Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, forged a unique career as a dancer and anthropologist.
Ruby Streate slips off her Converse low-tops and socks. Footless black tights are pulled over her heels; her toes are bare.
“Let’s start with our breathing,” she says, as Miles Davis plays softly. “Inhale one—two—three—four.”
Streate has taught classes in Dunham Technique for more than 40 years. She began studying with Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, in 1969, when “I was just a violent teenager.”
At 17—very late by dance standards—Streate took her first class at Dunham’s now-defunct Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Illinois. (East St. Louis, about 300 miles southwest of Chicago, is directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, its larger, more prosperous neighbor.) Just two months after that first class, Streate was asked to join the PATC’s performing company. “This is how good I was,” she says matter-of-factly. “A natural.”
There are 10 senior citizens in Streate’s class, held Thursday mornings in the gym at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center. They include Mary Cannon, a retired local TV presenter (“I was the first black on CBS St. Louis in 1963.”) and Lula Williams, who’s 90. Joyner-Kersee, who grew up in East St. Louis and went on to win six Olympic medals, takes the class when she’s in town.
After heel lifts and pliés, done with feet parallel, “Let’s go to isolations,” Streate says, adding, “One of the first techniques Miss D developed.”
Streate and her students practice head isolations: turning the head to the right, center, left, and back to center, while the body remains still. Then shoulder isolations. Then hip isolations. For any student of jazz dance, the movements are intimately familiar. But Dunham’s role in developing the technique has been forgotten.
At the end of class, the students perform a routine to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Dunham played temptress Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, the 1940 Broadway musical that made her famous. Today the song, a jazz standard, is probably best known as the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme.
Streate calls out the choreography. “Back it up. Walk that dog,” she says. “Work it out now. Strut it out. Pick your cherries. Oh!”
In her unlikely dual career, Katherine Dunham managed to do pioneering work in both dance and anthropology.
During the 1930s, as an anthropology major in the College, Dunham traveled alone to the Caribbean to research dance traditions that slaves had brought from Africa. She adapted what she learned into choreography for her company—the nation’s first self-supporting black dance troupe, which performed in the United States and 57 other countries. At a time when black culture was widely devalued, Dunham pointed to a rich cultural tradition that had not been crushed out by slavery.
As she traveled with her company from the 1940s to the mid-1960s, Dunham continued to study the dance forms of other cultures. She integrated these disparate traditions into both her dance technique and her choreography.
“Had she been only scholastic in ability, she would simply have become an exponent of West Indian folklore,” a writer for the Observer (London) noted in 1948. “Had she only been after fame and money” she could have opted for Broadway and Hollywood. “But Katherine Dunham is a young woman of great independence, and she chose her own course.”
Dunham was born in Chicago in 1909. Her father was African American; her mother, who died when Katherine was three, French Canadian and Native American. After her father remarried, the family moved to Joliet, Illinois, where he ran a dry cleaning business.
Dunham had little formal dance training. During high school she joined the Terpsichorean Club where she learned modern dance, an art form still in its early years. Dunham didn’t take her first ballet lesson until she was 19.
In 1929 she joined her older brother Albert Dunham, PhB’28, AM’31, PhD’33, at the University of Chicago, where he was studying philosophy. By 1930 she had formed the short-lived Ballet Nègre, one of the first African American ballet companies in the United States. She was just 21.
Early in her academic career Dunham attended a lecture by anthropologist Robert Redfield, LAB 1915, PhB’20, JD’21, PhD’28, whose research in Mexico focused on acculturation. Redfield suggested that black Americans had preserved African traditions in popular dances such as the lindy and the cakewalk. Dunham was struck by an intriguing possibility: what if African traditions in the New World were even better preserved in the dances of Afro-Caribbeans? It was an insight that would guide her unique career.
There are countless anecdotes about Katherine Dunham’s triumphs. Here’s one: At her 1934 interview with the Rosenwald Foundation, she wasn’t sure whether to present herself as an anthropologist or a dancer.
Asked about her proposed research, she suddenly decided: “Do you mind if I just show you?” As the astonished committee stared, Dunham slipped off her woolen suit to reveal a leotard and flowing dance skirt; she demonstrated ballet first, then pulsing African dance. The committee voted unanimously to award $2,400 (more than $40,000 in today’s money) to support her fieldwork in the Caribbean. At the recommendation of her mentor Melville Herskovits, PhB’20—a Northwestern University anthropologist and African studies expert—Dunham’s calling cards read both “dancer” and “anthropologist.”
Here’s another one. In Haiti, the respectable citizens disapproved of her interest in the rituals of vodun (also spelled vaudou, voodoo, and several other ways). So Dunham hired the largest theater in Port-au-Prince and announced a concert. Dressed in white tulle, she gave a flawless ballet performance, accompanied by the music of Debussy. “They loved it,” Dunham recalled, “and I was given a free hand thereafter to search out my ‘primitives.’”
In Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti—she fell in love with Haiti—Dunham “would rent a native hut … and patiently await an occasion to dance,” she recalled. “For a long time I was merely a happy participant in every dance I could manage to get to … . Then my academic training got the better of me.”
As a researcher in the Caribbean, Dunham had two striking advantages: she was of African heritage, and she picked up dances easily. To explain her interest, sometimes she just said she liked to dance, which made sense “to a people for whom dancing was an integral, vital expression of daily living,” she wrote in her book Dances of Haiti (Center for Afro-American Studies, 1983). Other times she expressed “the intention of some ancestral ritual obligation.” As anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in the foreword to the French edition of Dances of Haiti, Dunham portrayed herself as “a stray soul who had to be brought back into the fold of the traditional cult.”
It was not entirely a lie. Dunham claimed she was on the “border of belief and disbelief” about vodun, which appealed to her as a danced religion. When Dunham decided to go through the ceremony of lavé-tête (literally, washed head), she did it partly for her research and partly for herself. She hoped to get divine assistance for her brother, who had become mentally ill, and to help her future career.
During the three-day ceremony, her hair was matted with cornmeal, feathers, syrup, chicken, blood, herbs, and raw eggs, then wrapped in cloth. She had to wear the headwrap for a week afterward.
Herskovits was dismayed. He wrote to Dunham asking her to just observe, not participate in, vodun rituals; he worried about malaria and burns. Dunham ignored him.
When she returned to the United States in 1936 she brought drums of all sizes, as well as enough traditional clothing to dress her dance company for years.
And she continued to follow vodun practices. In her Bronzeville apartment Dunham kept an altar to Damballa, the serpent god whom she had married during the ceremony in Haiti.
Dunham was awarded a PhB in 1936, becoming one of the first African Americans to earn a degree in anthropology. Her UChicago master’s thesis, “The Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form, and Function,” was accepted but she never completed her course work; dancing demanded too much of her time. (Her thesis was first published as “Las danzas de Haiti,” in Spanish and English, in 1947; a French translation and revised English editions followed.)
Unsure which career to choose, she consulted Redfield, who suggested, “Why not pursue both?” During the decades she toured with her company, Dunham continued to research other cultures, publish books, and give lectures. Still, she felt guilty that a dance career wasn’t a dignified occupation for a research anthropologist. Sometimes she said she wished she could repay the Rosenwald Foundation.
From a contemporary perspective, Dunham’s research-to-performance method can be seen as “a radical reimagining of what anthropology might be,” writes Elizabeth Chin, editor of Katherine Dunham: Recovering an Anthropological Legacy, Choreographing Ethnographic Futures (School for Advanced Research Press, 2014). The fact that she pursued “performative anthropology,” rather than a traditional academic career, perhaps also explains why her contributions have gone “unacknowledged for so long,” Chin writes.
In 1938, supported by the Works Progress Administration, Dunham choreographed her first full-length ballet, L’Ag’ya, based on a Martinique fighting dance. Dunham danced the role of Loulouse, whom the villain tries to lure with a powerful love charm he obtained from the king of the zombies.
The assigned costume designer was John Pratt, PhB’33. He suggested a different ending for the ballet; the two argued. “It was rare for anyone to correct or criticize me in any of my creative work,” Dunham wrote in an unpublished memoir, “and unheard of that I would listen and consent to change.” But this time she did.
Dunham and Pratt were married in 1941 and later adopted a French daughter, Marie-Christine. For the rest of Dunham’s career, Pratt designed her company’s costumes and sets.
After the WPA Federal Theatre Project closed, Dunham wanted to keep the company of dancers together. So she booked the group into the Sherman Hotel’s Panther Room on a bill with Duke Ellington and Raymond Scott.
The show included American dances performed in shoes, as well as Rara Tonga and Bolero, danced barefoot. The owner feared that his customers would be offended, so Dunham made a concession: on their feet the dancers wore ribbons meant to look like sandal straps.
The nightclub appearance was a crucial decision in keeping her dance company solvent. To survive, scholar Susan Manning wrote, “Dunham had to improvise patronage at the interstices of leftist culture, elite black culture, commercial and noncommercial theater, and an emergent American ballet and modern dance.”
Soon after the Panther Room show, choreographer George Balanchine, who later founded the New York City Ballet, invited Dunham to appear in the Broadway show Cabin in the Sky. Blues singer Ethel Waters played Petunia, the loyal wife of gambler Little Joe; Dunham was cast as his love interest, Georgia Brown. The serious anthropology student was now a Broadway star.
But there’s an even more unlikely aspect to Dunham’s unlikely success. Since high school, she had suffered crippling arthritis in her knees. In New York she lived in a sixth-floor walk up; when she climbed the stairs she was forced to rest on the second and fourth floors.
One doctor, who treated her knees with excruciating injections of bee venom, told her if she didn’t give up dancing, she wouldn’t be able to walk in two years. Dunham ignored him as she had ignored Herskovits.
Partly to strengthen her knees, she began to develop her own dancing style, Dunham Technique. A synthesis of African and balletic movement, the technique required relaxed knees and a flexible back. It also emphasized isolations, adapted from African dance. Dunham continued to refine her technique over the decades, absorbing dance traditions from the countries where her company traveled.
“Dunham Technique makes very strong bodies,” recalled Glory Van Scott, who danced with the Dunham Company in the late 1950s. “There are a lot of things that Dunham dancers can do technically that other dancers cannot do. … It’s a very alive technique, very difficult, but a very natural and a very beautiful technique.”;
Anybody remember isolations?”
At 3 p.m. Ruby Streate is teaching at Estelle Sauget School of Choice in Cahokia, Illinois, about five miles from East St. Louis. The students wear their school uniforms with bare feet.
With children, Streate’s strictness—modeled after Dunham’s—comes through. “Excuse me,” she says sharply to a blond boy who is slumping; he immediately straightens.
“Cover your mouth, brother, when you yawn,” she says to another child. “I thought a tiger was about to attack me.”
The blond boy, it turns out, does excellent head isolations, snapping his head with machine-like precision.
Streate tries to teach the children the sashay, a step they’ll need for one of Dunham’s square dances. (Dunham’s dance revues typically included an “Americana” section, featuring folk dances from the South.) Streate steps on the ball of one foot, then brings her heel down: next she lifts the other foot and slaps it flat against the floor. There are just three parts to the step—ball, heel, slap—but it’s tricky.
Now Streate does the step up to tempo, with a graceful hip swing added. It’s true: she is a natural. Nonetheless, she tells the class, “If you pay attention, your body can do the same thing.”
The director of the after-school program, Brenda Mitchell, peeks in. She took dance classes from Streate as a child, she whispers; so did her daughters, now grown. Streate looks over and glares.
Half a mile down the road, at Penniman Elementary, she teaches a 4 p.m. class with 23 students, all African American.
“You sound like a bunch of old biddies in here,” she chides when they groan during the stretches. “My grandmother could lift her leg up higher.”
They practice balancing on one leg. “A flamingo,” she says, bringing a girl in bright pink pants to the front to demonstrate. “That comes from being focused.”
Later the students practice jumping straight up in the air. Streate brings the pink-pants girl to the front again. Her jumps are so high, they don’t seem physically possible. She’s on an invisible, personal trampoline.
Up she goes again. Up. And up. And up.
Cabin in the Sky, which opened on Broadway in 1940 and then toured the country, marked the beginning of Dunham’s meteoric rise. She was amused by the publicity: “I find myself referred to, and on the very same day, both as ‘the hottest thing on Broadway’ and ‘an intelligent, sensitive young woman … an anthropologist of note,’” she wrote in her autobiographical essay “Thesis Turned Broadway.”
It was a theme that continued in headlines throughout her career, scholar Constance Valis Hill has pointed out: “‘Schoolmarm Turned Siren,’ ‘Torridity to Anthropology,’ ‘Cool Scientist or Sultry Performer?’ and ‘High Priestess of Jive.’”
Dunham and her dancers appeared in Hollywood films, most famously Stormy Weather (1943). They performed on television, the first hourlong dance program on CBS. “I had never seen television but was thrilled at the idea of being another ‘first,’” Dunham wrote in an unpublished memoir.
The company—35 to 50 dancers and musicians—toured incessantly. Dunham’s “shrewd mix of show business, art, and anthropology,” as one critic described it, made this financially possible. The sensuousness of certain pieces—especially those performed in nightclubs—helped. “What I did onstage was considered daring,” Dunham once said. “Being on stage was, for me, making love. It was an expression of my love of humanity and things of beauty.”
A New York Times reviewer noted that a 1940 performance, which included folk dances from Cuba, Mexico, Haiti, Martinique, and the United States, was “tremendously anthropological and ‘important,’” but also “debonair and delightful, not to say daring and erotic.” The review ended with a postscript: “Better not take grandma.”
“Miss Dunham’s success has been acclaimed on all sides, from the Daily Express to the highbrows of classical dance,” an Observer reviewer wrote in 1948, noting that the “diverse and brilliant show” was “entirely the production of one person. ... [Dunham] must be something of a genius.” During the same trip to London, she gave a lecture on cults at the Royal Anthropological Society.
Despite the reviews, Dunham and her company still had to deal with the logistical difficulties that came with racial discrimination in the United States, Brazil, and elsewhere. Hotel accommodations could be difficult to find. Dunham often relied on Pratt, who was white, to make reservations.
The group sometimes performed in segregated theaters or nightclubs. As a teenager, choreographer Alvin Ailey sneaked in the back of Ciro’s in Los Angeles to see the Dunham Company: “There she was, gorgeous and glittering in gold bangles, doing black culture … where we, as blacks, couldn’t even enter.” At segregated venues, Dunham always staged some kind of protest, even if it meant just one African American was seated in the whites-only section.
In 1951 Dunham created a controversial ballet called Southland, which dramatized a lynching onstage. Commissioned by the Symphony of Chile, the ballet premiered in Santiago; it was so graphic, some of the audience wept. When the company performed Southland in Paris in 1953, a Le Monde reviewer wrote, “Katherine Dunham had changed since those wonderful evenings in Paris. … What has happened to the anthropologist we once admired?”
Hurt by the criticism of both performances—and by pressure from US diplomats concerned about anti-Americanism during the Cold War—Dunham never performed Southland again. In the 1950s the State Department began sending artists abroad as cultural ambassadors, but Dunham’s company was never chosen. When it was invited to perform in China, the US embassy refused to issue visas.
By 1965, after touring with her company for more than 25 years with no government support or other arts funding, Dunham was exhausted. The company’s final performance was at the Apollo, the famed vaudeville house in Harlem.
Dunham’s brother-in-law Davis Pratt, who taught at Southern Illinois University, arranged for her to become an artist in residence. Dunham was a visiting artist first at SIU–Carbondale, then at its northern branch in East St. Louis.
Dunham planned to stay a semester. But once there, “I was so moved by the terrible situation of East Saint Louis, the hopelessness, apathy, and utter despair that had been intensified by the riots, that I remained,” she said in 1976. “As an anthropologist and a humanist I felt that I could give something.”
With SIU’s support, Dunham established the Performing Arts Training Center, hoping that art could serve “as a rational alternative to violence and genocide.” The PATC offered classes taught by former Dunham dancers; students and teachers performed together in a semiprofessional traveling company. Dunham also established a museum to house the instruments, artwork, and artifacts she’d collected around the world.
The PATC, as Dunham described it, was “a unique effort to motivate and stimulate the unchallenged young people of the East Saint Louis area through the arts.”
One of those “unchallenged young people” was Ruby Streate.
She spoke so soft,” says Streate. “She spoke very, very soft. And she was always asking about being peaceful. Which was very strange in East St. Louis, a city that’s known for violence. She always talked about peace and love.”
Streate sits on the wooden stage in the backyard of Dunham’s museum, housed in a Renaissance revival mansion in the Pennsylvania Avenue Historic District—one of the few remains of the city’s happier past. Occasionally a freight train’s screech drowns her out; the track runs behind the yard.
“Miss Dunham would ask me, ‘Ruby, are you still mean?’ ‘No ma’am, I’m not mean anymore.’ ‘Ruby, I remember when you threw a desk at somebody. I remember when you threw a chair.’ But she never asked me that in front of my kids,” she says.
“She was just a beautiful person. Everybody alive should know somebody like Katherine Dunham. She was inspirational.”
Dunham died in 2006 at age 96. Today her museum, open by appointment only, is in difficult financial straits, says executive director Leverne Backstrom. Paying for utilities is a month-to-month struggle. “We can’t lose this museum,” says Backstrom. “It’s part of Miss Dunham’s legacy.”
An annual Dunham Technique seminar is held in the museum’s carriage house, which was converted to a dance studio in the early 1980s. The studio is also home to the Katherine Dunham Museum Children’s Workshop; Streate, the artistic dance director, teaches three days a week. She’s paid, says Backstrom, “when parents can afford to pay tuition.”
“She said she came to East St. Louis because it reminded her of Haiti,” Streate says. “The love that she experienced from people, the importance of family.”
Streate rattles off the names of young dancers who she is sure will keep Dunham’s work alive. “Like Nia. I can’t wait for you to meet little Nia. She’s just turned six. I know she’s superstar bound, because that’s her attitude,” she says.
“Like Heather,” who also took classes with Streate beginning at age six. “She’s 33 now. She graduated from Columbia College. She comes over and teaches jazz dance or ballet or hip-hop, whichever one the kids beg her to do.”
Streate says she would love to reconstruct the duet “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” with Heather in Dunham’s role, now that she’s “a grown woman.” Streate has a strong memory for choreography, but much of Dunham’s oeuvre is not appropriate for kids.
A car pulls into the lot. The students in her Children’s Workshop—who range in age from six to 16—are beginning to arrive.
“We can go inside now,” Streate says.
It’s time to teach another class.