Dancer-anthropologist Katherine Dunham was the first to research Caribbean dances and their socio-cultural contexts. From her seminal mid-1930s fieldwork, she re-created specific Afro-Caribbean dances into creative ballets on western stages, thus creating a dynamic confluence between anthropology and dance. As one of the few African American anthropologists of that period,1 Dunham’s choreographic method and her published ethnographies reveal an erudite artist-scholar who was very aware that she was breaking new ground.

Summarily, Dunham created performance ethnographies of the Caribbean on the world’s greatest stages, privileged the voices of her informants in her ethnographies, and created staged visions of cross-cultural communication. In the process, she clearly envisioned the African diaspora–the Black Atlantic–long before that nomenclature was ever used. Although Paul Gilroy conceptualized the Black Atlantic as an “...intercultural and transnational formation...” in the 1990s,2 Dunham implicitly understood and utilized this formation as both geographical and cultural in the 1930s, sixty years earlier. Her intellectual prescience illuminated crucial links between movement styles of African descendant peoples in the Americas and their overarching societies, revealing a legacy of creolized African culture in the Caribbean, the expressive dances and rhythms of which she wanted to dignify as important contributions to world culture

Dunham accomplished these firsts through a seminal methodology–research-to-performance–establishing a unique translation of anthropological fieldwork that privileged the body and its expressive potential to both reflect and constitute culture. Caribbeanist scholar VèVè A. Clark first analyzed Dunham’s methodology in her “Performing the Memory of Difference in Afro-Caribbean Dance: Katherine Dunham’s Choreography, 1938-87” in the History and Memory in African-American Culture text, which evolved from a crucial Harvard think tank on the subject. Clark reminds us that, “When the dance steps, music, and other cultural forms were transformed for stage representations, they became lieux de mémoire (sites of memory), reworkings and restatements of historical danced events whose memory Dunham had also preserved in writing and on film.” The actual stages on which Dunham’s researched ballets were performed, in other words, were turned into physical venues for each culture’s own danced memory of their African, European, and Native American experiences.

Excerpt from Dancing the Black Atlantic: Katherine Dunham’s Research-to-Performance Method, by Halifu Osumare, 2010. Online

Further reading:

ASCHENBRENNER, J. (2002). Katherine Dunham: dancing a life. University of Illinois Press. PDF

CHIN, E. (2014). Katherine Dunham: recovering an anthropological legacy, choreographing ethnographic futures. School for Advanced Research Press. Ebook

DEE DAS, J. (2017). Katherine Dunham: dance and the African diaspora. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Ebook

Main publications:

1921. Come Back to Arizona. The Brownie, 2, August.

1939. La Boule Blanche. Esquire, September.

1939. L’Ag’ya of Martinique. Esquire, November.

1941. “The Negro Dance.” In The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes, edited by Sterling Allen Brown, Arthur Paul Davis, and Ulysses Lee, 990–1000. New York: Dryden Press. Online

1946/1971. Journey to Accompong, with an introduction by Ralph Linton and illustrations by Ted Cook. New York: Henry Holt, 1946. Reprinted, Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1971. PDF

1947/1983. Dances of Haiti. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 1983. PDF

1947. Las Danzas de Haiti. Translated by Javier Romero. Mexico: Acta anthropológica.

1950. Les danses d’Haïti, with a forward by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Paris: Fasquelle Éditeurs.

1952. Afternoon into Night. Bandwagon, June. Reprinted in Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

1959. A Touch of Innocence. New York: Harcourt. PDF

1959. The Crime of Pablo Martinez. Ellery Queen’s Magazine.

1969/2012. Island Possessed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1974. Kasamance: A Fantasy. Illustrated by Bennie Arrington after original drawings by John Pratt. New York: Odarkai Books.

2005. Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. PDF