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Katherine Dunham
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten
10 May 1940
Carl Van Vechten Papers



Katherine Dunham, a dance innovator, anthropologist, and social activist, was a pioneer in the study and performance of African and African-American dance. She was still an undergraduate at the University of Chicago when she helped to found the Ballets Nègres, among the first all-African American dance companies in the United States. Dunham traveled in Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad, and Martinique for nearly two years as a participant–observer studying dance rituals and religious dance ceremonies—Dunham was even initiated as a voodoo priestess in Haiti. In 1945 she bought a mansion at 14 E. 71st Street in New York City and opened The Dunham School of Dance and Theater. The Amsterdam News reported: “she is the first of the Negro race to own a residence in the East 60s or 70s between Fifth Ave and Park Ave....For nearly a century this area has been monopolized by the biggest names in the financial and social world.”1 Dunham’s studio quickly became one of the most influential dance schools in the country. In 1964 she joined the faculty of Southern Illinois University. In nearby East St. Louis Dunham founded the Performing Arts Training Center, an innovative community arts center designed to help local African Americans—including the city’s gang members—learn about African culture and heritage and African-American arts and history.

1 “Dancer Dunham Buys Mansion in Ritzy Downtown Section,” Amsterdam News, 27 June 1945.



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