Dance ED Tip #81:
Katherine Dunham: A Trailblazer for Using Dance for Social Justice

October 15, 2019 - Susannah Keita

In 1970, Katherine Dunham wrote about the “fragmentary” societies of today, where “art becomes more important than ever to answer man’s need to participate, to experience total involvement, to restore psychic balance, to compensate for the spiritual inadequacies of the present. In one way or another, the philosophers of the human experience all agree that art brings the generative idea, the revelation, the vision awaited by man to set him free and at the same time provide a mechanism for that most important of all drives, creative participation.” (Dunham, 2005)

A foremost legend of 20th century dance, Katherine Dunham (1909 – 2006) understood that artists were among the earliest living cultural diplomats in human society. To Katherine Dunham, it was less important for her students to reach the ranks of dance royalty than to become citizens who would take part in the development of their own communities and raise the quality of their own lives. She became a star across the globe, but what she accomplished offstage truly distinguished her from her peers. She hired Brown and Black people during the pre-Civil Rights Era, locating talent in the far-reaching spaces she traveled. At home in the United States, she confronted the Jim Crow South and drove the desegregation of theatres in a time when Blacks and whites were barred from sitting next to each other. “Nothing satisfied me,” said Dunham, “as much as the investigation of dance, the participation in dance, the creation of dances, and helping develop dancers.” (Dunham, 2005) Her calling to teach led her to found schools in Chicago, New York City, and East St. Louis, Illinois, where she was able to enact her theory of socialization through the arts.  

After retiring from her stage and film career in the early 1960s, Dunham moved to East St. Louis in 1967. She raised the sense of social responsibility among her students and helped them to overcome destructive elements in their environment through studies of the arts and humanities, including dance. The technique that Katherine Dunham created is part of a holistic system aimed at developing the whole person. Knowing a physical movement is not enough according to Dunham’s theory of form and function. One must begin to understand why they are moving in a particular way, the origin of the movement, and what result this movement is intended to have on the self, surrounding community, and audience. There are at least five generations of Dunham dancers, starting with members of the original Dunham Company. Many of my own teachers trained in the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis.

Katherine Dunham inspired others to use multicultural sources in their work.   As a dance educator grounded in the Dunham Technique and Philosophies, I seek opportunities to apply a historically-based, culturally-responsive approach by designing classroom experiences that will help students assess their own personal biases. Making the commitment to decolonize one’s dance curriculum is an important step, but what does it mean to turn a decolonizing goal into action? To me, this means offering context for all of the dance forms we study and allowing students to problematize important issues through embodiment, discussion, and deep reflection. I teach in a college setting. For the pre-service dance educators I guide, my goal is to model inclusive and equitable practices, while making my methods transparent.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Dunham choreographed a range of themes and presented a variety of dance styles. This alone was notable during a time when Black performing artists were relegated to all-Black musicals or flash acts in a film. During a curtain speech after her company’s performance in Kentucky in 1944, she remarked, “It makes me very happy to know that you have liked us, but tonight our hearts are very sad because this is a farewell to Louisville . . . I have discovered that your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us. I hope that time and the unhappiness of this war for tolerance and democracy . . . will change some of these things. Perhaps then we can return.” After deliberating, the theatre board decided to integrate. “They got themselves together,” she said, recounting the story at Jacob’s Pillow in 2002. (2019)

Katherine Dunham faced racism and sexism head on, even as she struggled to balance her own artistic dreams, personal desires, and political commitments. (Dee Das, 2017) As mentor and guides, we should prepare young people for the beautiful and varied lives they will lead, increasing each student’s agency to engage with the world, and encouraging them to become artists and leaders in their own right. After all, the goal of Dunham Technique is self-mastery.  

Works Cited

Dee Das, Joanna. Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora. Oxford University Press. 2017.

Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham. Edited by V. Clark and S. Johnson, University of Wisconsin, 2005.

Katherine Dunham on Overcoming 1940s Racism, Jacob's Pillow: Pillow TV, 14 Oct. 2019, https://youtu.be/R_h0PBtv5-c.


Susannah “Sukie” Keita (MFA) is director of the Dance Department at Grand Canyon University where she has founded degree programs in dance and dance education. She leads the pre-professional student company, Ethington Dance Ensemble, and engages K-5 grade youth in metropolitan Phoenix with the GCU Elementary Dance Tour. A graduate of the University Of Arizona School Of Dance, she became a certified teacher of the Katherine Dunham Technique, specializing in jazz and modern. She serves as Pedagogy Chair for the Institute of Dunham Technique Certification and past-president of the Arizona Dance Education Organization. A veteran K-12 dance educator, her focus is to build cultural competencies among future dance educators through a holistic study of dance.