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Katherine Dunham Fused Together Dance and Anthropology

Dunham as "Woman with the Cigar" in Tropics. Photo courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) brought African dance aesthetics to the United States, forever influencing modern and jazz dance. She was instrumental in getting respect for blacks on the concert dance stage and directed the first self-supported African-American dance company.

Dunham was born in Illinois, where she developed an interest in dance during high school. At the encouragement of her brother, she moved to Chicago in 1928, where she began studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. Dunham founded her own company, Ballet Négre, in 1930 as an alternative to the minstrel stereotype that was the predominant role available for African-American performers at the time. Though it soon folded, she was undeterred: Two years later, she created the Negro Dance Group with Ludmilla Speranzeva, her former ballet teacher.


In 1934, she was granted funding to travel to the Caribbean and conduct anthropological fieldwork in dance. She spent 10 months in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti, where she was initiated into the Haitian religion Vodou.

Upon her return to the U.S. in 1936, she re-formed her company, her choreography newly infused with the polyrhythmic and pulsating movements of the Caribbean. Dunham and her company performed in several Broadway revues, touted by critics as performers of a new dance genre, Negro dance. On tour, the company encountered significant racial prejudice—hotels refused rooms for her dancers, and presenters segregated audiences. Dunham became an activist, threatening to sue for discrimination and to withhold future engagements until circumstances had changed for the better. In 1951, she premiered her racially controversial piece Southland, despite warnings not to from the State Department, and was consequently refused funding for later touring.

In 1945, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York City. Her student body and faculty were both interracial and international; Dunham intended her school to be a model for racial equality.

Her company disbanded permanently in 1964, after sweeping success abroad and far less acceptance of her progressive work in her own country. A talented writer, Dunham published several books in her lifetime, including Island Possessed, which detailed her time in Haiti, and her memoir A Touch of Innocence.

Style

Dunham Technique blends polyrhythmic Afro-Caribbean movement, modern and ballet, with a focus on strengthening the core and creating a versatile torso. Isolations of the head, shoulders, torso and hips occur frequently, as do back undulations and contractions.

Form and function are closely related in this technique. Isolations of the pelvis, for example, can be overtly sexual, not unlike twerking, which has its origins in West African dance. Dunham's movement style was controversial in her time and often censored.

Fun Facts:

* At the age of 82, Dunham went on a hunger strike in protest of the U.S. government's treatment of Haitian refugees.

* Martha Graham once referred to Dunham as the “high priestess of the pelvic girdle."

* Dunham's company toured 57 countries between 1943 and 1965, enjoying wild success in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia.

The Work

L'Ag'Ya (1938) This piece was Dunham's interpretation of the ag'ya, a Martinique fighting dance. During its creation, she met designer John Pratt, who would become both her longtime artistic collaborator and her second husband.

Cabin in the Sky (1940) George Balanchine, who choreographed this Broadway musical, asked Dunham to play the seductress Georgia Brown. She ended up contributing choreography.

Southland (1951) In this piece, a young black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman and eventually lynched. This racially charged ballet was immediately suppressed after its premiere and is rarely revived.

The Legacy Lives On

The Dunham Technique is taught in university dance programs and master classes throughout the U.S., Haiti, Cuba and France. Former students of Dunham include the actor James Dean, Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell and philanthropist Doris Duke. Dancers Talley Beatty, Julie Robinson Belafonte and Eartha Kitt were all members of her company.

The Conversation
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When it comes to running a thriving dance studio, Cindy Clough knows what she's talking about. As executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner for more than four decades, she's all too aware of the unique challenges the job presents, from teaching to scheduling to managing employees and clients.

Here, Clough shares her best advice for new studio owners, and the answers to some common questions that come up when you're getting started.

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Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The list goes on—and you have to decide not only what type of presence you'll have on each platform, but also whether you and your faculty will network with students and family members. How can you set boundaries for yourself and your faculty on social media?

The easiest option may be to prohibit these interactions entirely. At the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, staff and faculty may not "friend" or otherwise connect with current students or those under the age of 18 on social media, explains Gordon Wright, Harid's executive vice president and director.

At the Dance Zone in Henderson, Nevada, the handbook states that social media should be handled "in a professional manner." Owner Jami Artiga encourages students and faculty to share photos and tag the studio, but prefers not to "friend" kids from her personal account. "Of course, my son dances at the studio, and we have teachers with kids who go here, so sometimes the line gets blurry," she says.

Robin Dawn Ryan of the Robin Dawn Academy in Cape Coral, FL, also has a few students on her Facebook friend list, "but I don't put a lot about my personal life on the site," she says. She uses the platform more to keep track of what dancers and their parents are posting about the studio. "If they put up something they shouldn't," she says, whether that's a bullying post or an unflattering image, "I'll ask them to take it down."

Ryan tends to keep her social-media shout-outs generic: "So proud of this year's graduates!" and "Our dancers looked beautiful at prom!" That way, she can show support without spending hours online or worrying about missing any one student's achievement.

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When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.

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Many a studio owner might agree that the idea of maternity leave is laughable. "So many people say, 'I was back after two weeks—we had a competition,'" says Meagan Ziebarth, a former owner who sold her studio two years ago. "If that works for you, and you feel great, wonderful. But I feel passionately that having a baby is one of the most transformational life events, and you don't need to put that kind of pressure on yourself and accept that that's the norm."

So how can you take the maternity leave you want and make sure your studio doesn't run itself into the ground? We asked three who did it for their best advice—including what they wish they'd done differently.

Be OK With Crazy

Suzana Stankovic and Natalia.

Suzana Stankovic
Wild Heart Performing Arts Studio
Astoria, New York
Enrollment: 500 (drop-in)
2 years in business

Suzana Stankovic signed the lease on her New York studio a mere 10 days before she gave birth to her first child. The space she'd been renting hourly for private and group lessons unexpectedly became available for a lease takeover, and, despite the timing, it felt like the right decision. "I said, 'This is happening for a reason,'" she says.

For the first two months after her baby was born, Stankovic recovered (she'd had a C-section). She held a soft opening in mid-November (2 1/2 months postdelivery) for existing students and officially opened her studio—with a drop-in class format—to the public the following January (4 months postdelivery).

  • Figure out your childcare. "It's the most important thing. You've got to figure that out, whether that means visiting daycare centers and finding one you're comfortable with or involving your entire family," she says. Stankovic's parents are retired and live near her, luckily, so they became her nannies. "That's the major reason I was able to do this," she says.
  • Expect to feel different after giving birth. "When I had my baby, and it came time to leave her and go to work, it was very, very difficult," says Stankovic. "I wasn't prepared for that. I was texting my mother constantly: 'Is she OK? Did she have her milk? Is she colicky?' It was hard to be fully present, initially. Be prepared for the effects of sleep deprivation and not eating well and the postpartum blues."
  • Have a support system in place. That's how Stankovic got through the roughest times, postbirth. "Have a friend or your husband or partner," she says. "And know that the very difficult times are temporary. They do abate. And if they don't, there are resources. There's help out there."
  • Be OK with crazy. "I would plan my lesson and do my combos in the shower," she says. "On my way to the studio, I'd finish up my grand allégro in my head. I'd send e-mails in the middle of changing her diaper—I'd write two sentences, change the diaper, write two more, then hit send." The result of so much multitasking? "I realized, 'Wow, I can do so much more than I thought I could,'" says Stankovic. "I'm ready for anything."
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