Monday, September 17, 2012

Katherine Dunham’s Journey to East St. Louis

Katherine Dunham during the 1960s

By Danielle Hall 

In 1965, choreographer, dancer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, then artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale, had sought to establish a dance and cultural arts center in East Saint Louis, Illinois – a city often plagued by its history of violence, poverty, and local government corruption. However, by the late 1960s, Katherine Dunham had made East St. Louis her primary residence and the question that remained in many people’s minds was why?

What’s notable about Dunham’s journey to East Saint Louis is that throughout her lifetime, she had made many physical and intellectual migrations that influenced her decision to live in East Saint Louis. Dunham was awarded a travel fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and spent a year studying dance and religious rituals in the Caribbean in 1935 - 1936. In subsequent years, Dunham traveled and toured with her dance company on stages worldwide. Likewise, Dunham had lived in major cultural centers like Chicago and New York, and had homes in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Dakar, Senegal.

One of Dunham’s inherent gifts was her way of seeing the good in the people and places she encountered. What attracted Dunham to East St. Louis were the commonalities in the folk expressions among the youth and young adults on the streets with those she had studied and interacted with in Africa and the Caribbean. Dunham saw this as an opportunity to educate the community by teaching them to have pride in their history and culture.

Dunham demonstrated her interest in community education through the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) and later in the 1970s when she founded the Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum, which, to date, features a ride array of artifacts that she collected throughout her travels. For Dunham, this process of socialization through the arts was a way of “arousing awareness… of surpassing alienation, and of serving as a rational alternative to violence and genocide.”

By engaging youth, Dunham was instilling in them a desire to survive and to value themselves in spite of adversity - a skill she herself had to master in her lifetime.


Danielle Hall is a program coordinator and contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.  

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