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Katherine Dunham was a renowned anthropologist, choreographer and dancer whose works are still impressive and whose career spun over 50 years. Her dances were heavily characterized by afro-Caribbean dances and tunes in American showbiz settings, creating very exotic dances and drama. The costumes were also colorful, the settings plush and the dances fast and energetic. Dunham's signature included having a series of dances to tell stories.
One of Dunham's most dramatic, and renowned because of this was a dance called 'Shango'. Dunham describes Shango as a form of voodoo ritualistic dance that was practiced in many parts of the Caribbean. Dunham was a voodoo priestess herself. In Shango, the story line is about worshipping a god. The Shango dance was a dance of determination, and a form of intervention to ask the gods to grant the people goodness. Dunham believed that Shango was the most powerful African rituals dance. The dance itself is fast and energetic, incorporating jumping, hopping and other forms of fast-paced Caribbean dance forms. The Shango dance by Dunham was about a possessed young man. There is a lot of ululating and screeching noises made by the cast and lots of dances and movements. The setting is a traditional one in the Caribbean, and it is an outdoor activity. The lighting of the set is dark, probably representing the dark forces surrounding the possessed. Despite this, the mood is lively and fast, with the cast making swaying, zombie-like movements to represent possession by spirits. The whole dance is heavily influenced by African ceremonies; there is the beating of drums and a clinging metallic sound in a rhythm and the jumping up and down in rhythm is very common in African dances. There is also a lot of chanting in a foreign tongue and sacrifices of animals, probably meant to appease good spirits. The costumes are also Afro-influenced; they are white in color, probably to invoke good spirits despite the possession of the people by evil spirits. The females in the cast were white dresses with white head kerchiefs or their hairs are plaited to increase the Afro-influence in the story. The men wear white shirts and trousers, while others have their shirts off and others have white headbands. The dance is really feverish, with a lot of screaming and screeching that brings to life the whole idea of being possessed (Beckford 20-60).
Katherine Dunham was born in Illinois in 1906 to a tailor father and a mother who was an assistant principal, therefore being brought up fairly comfortable in a middle class family. Though her childhood years were comfortable, this took a turn for the worst when Katherine's mother fell ill and died leaving her and her older brother under the care of their father. Times became hard and her father, after losing his business and forced to sell their home, took on a job as travelling sales man. Due to the nature of his job, Katherine and her brother, Albert jr. Were forced to live with relatives, moving from one to the next. It was during this time that Katherine was introduced to the life of theatre and acting by her relatives. She fell instantly in love with the theater and dancing, and this set her on path of future career. After a while, his father returned home with another wife. Unlike most step-mothers, Katherine's was very good to her and her brother and was source of consolation from their father's strict nature, which eventually drove his wife away. Because she could not deal with the father's strict ruling of his house, Katherine moved in to her step-mother's place after her brother left home for college. She later moved in with her brother and went to college at the University of Chicago to study Anthropology, where the brother was also sitting for his master's degree. While in college, she continued dancing and featured in many productions in one of Chicago's local theatres.
Katherine was passionate about dance, a passion she got as a teenager in high school. After finishing her undergraduate studies, she went to Haiti where she was introduced to the culture of voodoo and her passion for dance was further influenced by the dances of the Afro-Caribbean cultures. From here henceforth, all her dances were influenced by this culture of the Haitians. Dunham's dances were not conventional to the society of dance in those ages, especially between the 1930's and 1950's. However, they generated enough interest throughout and this led to several performances and tours around the world. Dunham had several infamous productions to her name including pins and needles, "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem," among other dance productions. During the civil rights movement period, Katherine was not left behind and she helped open a school and a training centre for the youth of a deprived neighborhood. Katherine also led a controversial life, apart from the controversies that her style of dance generated. For instance, she married a white costume designer and artist named John Pratt, in times when interracial marriages were being frowned upon. She stayed with Pratt till his death in 1986. They had one adopted daughter. She also caused for a law in Brazil to be passed that forbade discrimination in public after she and her cast were denied accommodation in a Brazilian hotel because of their skin color. She caused another controversy in 1992, when she went on a 47-day fast to protest the deportation of Haitian refugees who were fleeing a military coup that overthrew the then government. Because of her age, this would have had severe effects on her, but she did not let up until the overthrown president of Haiti, Mr. Astrides paid her a personal visit (Anderson). Until her death in 2006, Katherine Dunham had received numerous awards because of her contributions both in the academic front and in the growth of black dance. She died at the age of 96 in New York, after living a colorful and lively life.
'Island Possessed' is one of Katherine Dunham's works in literature and as a writer. The book is all about the travails she faces as she goes about doing what she loves best; dancing, choreographing and experiencing new and different cultures. The book's setting is mostly in Haiti, where she spent a lot of time. She considered Haiti her second home, and to that effect she bought a house there, that also doubled up as a rehearsal studio. The book was published in New York in 1969, and Katherine dedicated it to her husband John Pratt. The editor's note talks about the book's contents and enlightens us to the fact that the book was written by Katherine in her home in Senegal where she had moved to. Katherine's love for Haiti started when she received a Rosenwald Fellowship to study primitive dance and rituals in the West Indies and Brazil in 1936 for fieldwork purposes, after successfully completing her degree in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Already an established dancer and choreographer, Katherine found the dance rituals in Haiti very intriguing and she made several visits to the country after that. She was so familiar with the country, mingling with the rich and poor alike, in villages and in the towns that the people came to accept her as one of their own.
Through her anthropology studies, she got to learn about the history of Haiti; the influence that slavery had had on the people and the bloody fight for independence. She interacted with many leaders of the Haitian people and saw the influences in everyday living that the people had brought from Africa to their new homes in the Caribbean nation. In her travels, Katherine discovered that the biggest unifying factor among the Haitians was their religion of Verdun (voodoo). So much did this religion excite her that the people let her in some of their most secretive ceremonies? Finally she was initiated into the religion by going through a number of rites of passage. These included a first initiation and later acceptance to the second level which was initiation by fire. Apart from her time spent in Haiti, this book also looks at the travel of Katherine's Dunham's dance company around the world and the challenges they face, particularly because of their race (they were African-Americans).
The book starts off with Katherine informing the readers of the fellowship grant that would see her study cultures in the Caribbean. The study was to take her to several countries in the West Indies including Haiti, Trinidad, Martinique and other islands. However, her studies were focused on Haiti. She arrived in Haiti just as the American occupation of the country had just ended. She saw a big disparity between the small number of the upper echelon, who wanted to rule Haiti and that was their motivation fir fighting off the French, and the majority of poor black peasants who scraped by in life. When Katherine set foot in Haiti, the then government was on mission to change the face of Haiti in order to attract tourists. However, one of the hindrances in this was the secrecy that surrounded many of the cultural practices in the country. Before Katherine's visit to the country, there had been earlier visitors to the country who had written about the social order and the differences in their living conditions. However, their perspectives of the matter were not entirely valid since they were white men, who could relate little with the masses of black people. Although Katherine was black, most of the time she felt as if she was out of place, neither white nor completely black, but could relate better with the black people of Haiti. In these first days, Katherine comes to appreciate the meaning of the word negritude as being a black community but belonging to the rest of the outer world, regardless of race.
Though her studies were to be based in Haiti, Katherine made two different visits. The first visit was a short one, which she took en route to Jamaica. During this first visit, Katherine was given tour round Haiti, as well as delivering letters that she had been asked to by the head of the Rosenwald Fellowship. One of the first memories that Katherine has of her first day in Haiti was the gap between the magnificence of the rich and the poverty of the lower classes. Katherine noticed that there was a form of social segregation based on one's skin color. The upper elites were mostly made up of light-skinned 'mulattos' and the darkest skinned blacks were usually considered to be at the bottom of the stack. Katherine had experienced some of this segregation at the customs department when she arrived and at the hotel where she stayed. Since her color was not entirely black, she was let off a little easily. For instance, in her hotel, the proprietors could not really determine her exact race. Because of her academic credentials and letters of introduction from the Rosenwald Fellowship, the proprietors gave her some kind of respect. However, judging by her skin color, they were not too sure she was to be accorded the respect. Katherine also witnessed the differences in jobs and ranks that were given to people; they were mostly dependent on one's race and more so on skin color. These impressions stuck on Katherine's head throughout her one year stay in Haiti.
Apart from getting mixed reactions because of her color from various workers in the hotel some of the friendships that Katherine made were also affected by the caste system of classes. For instance one of her friends called Roger Anselm, who was a mulatto refused to escort her to her hotel when one of the dignitaries, a black, intelligent and politically-set man called on her. His reason was based on the separation of the social classes. This decision hurt Katherine so much that she ended her friendship with Anselm. Another instance that made Katherine detest the caste system in Haiti occurred when she started mingling with the lower class blacks of the city. Whenever any of them wanted to talk to her, they would wait outside her window across the road till she appeared or would discreetly pass a message to one of the maids to request for her audience. When she had to talk to them, Katherine had to get out of the hotel and walk cross the road and sit on the public benches. Any thoughts of inviting her guests to her studio hotel would lead to punitive measures by the hotel proprietors. These interactions with the lower classes eventually caused Katherine's social status to be pushed to the bottom like her friends. This, Katherine cared little about and continued seeing her lower class friends, for whom she had real affection, love, commitment and sympathies. Another one of Katherine's friends that she felt was being sidelined was Fred Alsop, who owned the only mechanic shop in town. The elitists did not consider him entirely as one of their own, although they tolerated him. Again, her friendship with Alsop led to her being ostracized by other guests in her hotel and the proprietors as well.
Katherine also looks at the social and political order in Haiti during the occupation by the United States of America. Katherine had first arrived in the country just after the occupation had come to an end. She notes the roles women play of serving and attending to kitchen and home matters, while the males in the family entertained guests. Women were never seen at tables having conversations with other male guests. One woman that stood out of all this was Mrs. Price-Mrs. She was a liberated woman and had several chats with Katherine such as politics and the liberation of other women in Haiti from their then state of subjugation. With regards to the American occupation of Haiti, Katherine realized that most Haitians hated Americans for the methods they used to ensure that they remained in power in Haiti. The methods used gave little regard to the cultures, norms and likes of the Haitian people. The Haitian presidents that ruled during the occupation were puppets of the American government, and had very little powers or say in many matters affecting the country. A demonstration organized and sponsored by the Church of the Sacred Heart in the city to ask for sovereignty of Haiti from American rule turned out to be peaceful, and a commissioner charged with overseeing the possibility of such a move was so impressed that he recommended that Haitians be granted their wish.
Interactions and sympathies for the local people led to the people having a lot of faith on Katherine. They saw in her an educated but humble person, unlike the elite who usually looked down on them. Katherine was never afraid to go to the slums to see her friends, whom she considered the real faces of Haiti then. Furthermore, because of her dark skin, she was easily accepted by the people as one of their own, rather than a foreigner there to study their culture. This trust the people had in Katherine led them to let her in some of their most sacred and secretive ceremonies. Instead of feeling weird or superior to these cultures and the practices of the religion of voodoo, Katherine was intrigued by them. She felt a connection to the religion and to its followers like she had not done before. These factors led to her desire to want to join the religion. She was initiated into the first level of the voodoo religion during the first year she stayed in Haiti, and was initiated to the upper second level during a consequent visit, making her a priestess in the religion.
Apart from Haiti, Katherine was also to stay in Jamaica for part of her fieldwork in the research she was undertaking. This she did for a month, staying with a remote community of a traditionally warrior tribe called the Maroons. This community lived isolated in the deep mountains in Jamaica. The descendants of this community were runaway slaves and prisoners who had evaded being made slaves. They were known to be very rebellious and hostile, such that they had forced the British to sign a peace treaty that would let the British leave them in peace. Their most famous dance was a war dance called Koromantee war dance. This dance was perceived as being very intimidating, even to the British. The Maroons did not trust outsiders, much less to allow them to watch or participate in the Koromantee war dance. However, because of her skills of patience, a knack for staying out of trouble and her passion for dance, the Maroons allowed Katherine to join in the dance. She did this enthusiastically, and from here she picked some of the moves she would later incorporate in her dancing companies' productions. The visit to the Caribbean opened Katherine's eyes to a whole new experience, both in dance and in her view of the world.
After her one year of fieldwork was over, Katherine returned to the USA in 1937, armed with her report on the cultures and religious studies, and also an experience in the dance rituals of these cultures. Katherine came back and completed her Master's degree whose thesis was the adaption of traditional African religious studied in the new world, which was inspired by her stay in the Caribbean. Though Katherine continued teaching, studying and writing academic papers, her passion for dance did not fade at all. Armed with the new ides she had learnt from the ritualistic religious dances of the West Indies, she started her own company called the Negro dance group. This group was different from other dance groups during the time in that Katherine created it in order to show to the world aspects of African-inspired dances of the Caribbean religions, as well as incorporating the African-American dance aspects during that time. Katherine's productions merged together drama and dance to tell stories and come up with very interesting forms of art. Katherine's stories were on different themes including highlighting various social aspects at the time. Of all the dances that Katherine produced, she loved 'Shango' the most. The story of Shango is one of an Afro-Caribbean religious aspect.
Katherine's works in drama were usually very controversial. This is because they did not follow the conventional rules of dance as they were during her time. Her dances were usually lively, fast-paced, twisted the body in different wyes and included other impressions on the set that usually made them unpleasant to the dance elite and critics. For this she earned a lot of criticism from dance communities around the USA. Some of her productions were considered too explicit to be shown to the general masses. One of these was Rites de Passage, a 1941 production whose main theme was puberty and fertility. It was considered as being to sexually explicit and was withdrawn from many theaters where it was to show. However, Katherine's productions were as controversial and straight forward as they were successful. Together with her company, she toured the USA, Brazil and other Latin American countries to play her productions. Her dance company debuted in Broadway in 1940 by appearing in the musical 'Cabin in the sky'. This brought Katherine and her company to the limelight, especially in New York, where she had relocated her company. Katherine introduced a new style in theatres using her unique choreographies and telling of stories using dance and music. This unique style was nick-named the 'Dunham touch.' This style was especially evident in two of her dances, the "'L'Ag'ya' and 'Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem," two of her most popular productions that experienced extended times in the theaters due to a high demand.
Katherine, apart from being an academician, dancer, choreographer and writer, she was also an efficient manger. This was shown by the way she ran her company efficiently without any outside funding, by any organization or government. Furthermore, she had started a company a few years after the Great Depression of 1929 when most companies were still grappling to stay on top. Her flair for management was admirable since her company never once went bankrupt or broke. To supplement her income and keep her company going, Katherine exploited her talent in film by appearing in a number of movies including the 1939 movie Carnival of Rhythm and the 1943 Stormy Weather. This she did on her own or with her company. Throughout the 1940's Katherine's company expanded and started doing shows in Europe. Despite the newness of the kind of dance she was doing, Katherine and her company received praises for having entertaining shows. She received recognition for being a good choreographer, dancer and scholar.
In spite of the huge success that Katherine Dunham achieved in her career, she experienced many challenges that would have brought an end to her career and passion had she given in and soldiered on. For instance, at the time of the company's inception and throughout most of its existence, racism was rampant in most parts of the world. Being African-American whose company was predominantly made up of the same, Katherine experienced this prejudice every step of the way. In one occasion, Katherine was asked to sign a studio contract by a company in Hollywood but had to get rid of the very dark-skinned members of her cast. She turned down the offer without a thought. In another instant while on tour in Brazil, Katherine and her company were denied accommodation in a hotel that they had been booked in by her white secretary. This led to Katherine finding a lawyer and suing the hotel for discrimination. Her lawyer was called Alfonso Arinos, who was also a congressman in Brazil's parliament. The result for her refusal to be discriminated ended in a public apology by the then Brazilian president and also the passing of the anti-discrimination law that protected Brazilians of African descent. Katherine also participated actively in fighting segregatory rules in the USA by publicly condemning the 'vice' and filing lawsuits against restaurants, hotels and other places that practiced discrimination. Her works against discrimination culminated in 1967 when" she founded the Performing Arts Training Center, a cultural program and school for the neighborhood children of a slum in Illinois, with programs in dance, drama, martial arts, and humanities."
Katherine Dunham's Island Possessed is a memoir that takes us through her journey, from the time she visited the Caribbean, which had a great impact on her dance and scholarly life, to opening her dance company to the end of her dance life and continuing of her scholarly and philanthropic works, till she settled to a quiet life in Senegal. Hers is a story of inspiration and courage that has inspired many to follow their dreams no matter the challenges ahead.
Beckford, Ruth. Katherine Dunham: A Biography. New York, 1979. Print.