This week in history: Dancer Katherine Dunham heads to Haiti

While studying at the University of Chicago in 1935, Dunham, born this week on June 22, 1909, won a fellowship to research native dances in Haiti and the West Indies.

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Portrait of dancer Katherine Dunham

Dancer Katherine Dunham poses in an undated portrait. The famed performer and choreographer was born this week on June 22, 1909.

Sun-Times file

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

By 1935, Chicago Daily News readers had likely become familiar with the name Katherine Dunham appearing in print. At 26, she’d made a name for herself as a dancer. In 1933, she and her dance group performed native African ceremonial dances at the Punch and Judy theater, and a year later, she danced in the ballet of the Chicago Grand Opera Company.

Dunham, born June 22, 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, recognized the powerful meanings that could come from dances and movements in Black cultures, and in 1935, she won the opportunity to study the dances of Haiti and the West Indies. The year-long project influenced her own choreography and made significant contributions to the field of anthropology.

Dunham started her tour in June 1935 when she won a fellowship from The Rosenwald Fund, according to a June 20 Daily News article. To prepare, she spent three months studying with Northwestern University’s Prof. Melville J. Herskovits, an expert in the field of anthropology in Haiti, the West Indies and Guianas.

“Miss Dunham is not only a dancer but a composer of dances, a choreographer,” Edwin R. Embree, president of the fund, told reporter Frank L. Hayes. “She will gather transplanted African dance motives and rhythms which she plans to adapt in new dances to be presented in the United States.”

Hayes, of course, couldn’t follow Dunham on her tour, but she filmed many of the dances she witnessed. Clips from that footage can now be found in the Library of Congress archives. One clip shows “calenda and banda dances of Trinidad in outdoor settings, accompanied by male drummers and women singing and playing maracas,” and another depicts a traditional dance from Martinique and shows “a compilation of travel and dance footage in Martinique and Jamaica.”

When the dancer returned to the U.S. a year later, Hayes attended her demonstration of a Haitian ceremonial dance to a voodoo snake spirit called Damballa back at the fund’s offices at 48th Street and Ellis. Herskovits drummed as she danced. As he picked up the pace, “the dancer’s shoulder’s twitched in slow rhythm, gradually accelerating with the drum,” Hayes reported. “The selected audience drew in its breath.”

While in Haiti, Dunham recounted, she first learned the dance to Damballa in the plains of the country, but when she performed it in the mountains, some of the people watching could not be convinced that she, with her talent and skill, had been trained. They believed she was actually possessed by Damballa.

“They even brought offerings to me, as they do to one who is possessed,” she explained. “It was an embarrassing situation, for I did not wish to deceive them by pretending to a possession which was not real. I took the only way out I could think of, plunging into the baptismal pool.”

For the most part, the local men and women, many of whom were skeptical of Americans after the “publication of sensational accounts or purported accounts of Haitian mysteries,” welcomed Dunham, who convinced them of her sympathies and her sincere desire to live as they lived. But there was one major trial in Trinidad.

“I brought a chicken to a ceremony to sacrifice for an ancestor,” she recounted. “I tried to take a picture of a man who was possessed. My clicking camera betrayed me; the people disbanded the ceremony and, much exorcised, held a meeting to decide what should be done about me. I slid out, saying I would return; I did return another time, and think I was forgiven, but they were rather cool.”

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