Her Story: Katherine Dunham

Katherine Mary Dunham (1909-2006) was a legendary African-American dancer, choreographer, innovator, and anthropologist. She changed the world of dance forever and promoted greater cultural understanding through social activism. Today we celebrate Black History Month by honoring Katherine Dunham.

Dunham began dancing at an early age but she didn’t consider dance as a career. Followed her family’s wish to become a teacher and attended the University of Chicago. Thus becoming the first African-American woman to attend this university and where she earned a bachelors, masters, and doctorate degree in anthropology. 

After graduation, Dunham founded the first American black dance company. They performed with the Chicago opera company, which led to the Rosenwald Foundation awarding Dunham a large grant to continue her innovative work. She used the money to travel throughout the Caribbean studying dance from an Anthropological perspective. 

When she returned to the United States, Dunham revolutionized the world of dance by introducing the use of folk and ethnic choreography. She offered the rich cultural heritage of African-American dance based on black roots and is credited for bringing Caribbean and African influences to the European-dominated dance world.

Dunham opened her own school of dance in New York in 1944, making her the first black woman to own a dance company. The company toured for two decades and had great success throughout the world. She later became the first black choreographer at the metropolitan opera in New York City when she choreographed Aida in 1963.

Katherine Dunham has a long list of accomplishments including appearing in multiple movies, authoring nine books and numerous articles during her lifetime. She received multiple awards and accolades for her contribution to the arts. But she has also been recognized for using her talent to reduce poverty and violence, advocate for racial equality, and fight for social justice through the arts. Dunham was truly a national treasure both on the dance floor and off. Today we honor her legacy, she made history.

Sources and Links:

About The Author


Mother, Photographer, Wisecracker.... not necessarily in that order.

Let's Hear It For The Girls! (Let us know what you think!)

%d bloggers like this: