Katherine Dunham

Dancer + Choreographer + Songwriter + Activist
Born Jun 22, 1909

Katherine Dunham was an American dancer, choreographer, and company director as well as an author, educator, and social activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the 20th century and has been called the "matriarch and queen mother of black dance.… Read More

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Learn about the memorable moments in the evolution of Katherine Dunham.


1909 Birth Katherine Mary Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in a Chicago hospital and taken as an infant to her parents' home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a village about 25 miles west of Chicago. … Read More


1921 12 Years Old Dunham became interested in both writing and dance at a young age. In 1921, a short story she wrote when she was 12 years old called "Come Back to Arizona" appeared in volume 2 of The Brownies' Book. … Read More
1928 19 Years Old In 1928, while still an undergraduate, Dunham began to study ballet with Ludmilla Speranzeva, a Russian dancer who had settled in Chicago, having come to the United States with the Franco-Russian vaudeville troupe Le Théâtre de la Chauve-Souris directed by impresario Nikita Balieff. … Read More


1931 22 Years Old 1 More Event
In 1931, when she was only 21, Dunham formed a group called Ballets Nègres, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States. … Read More
1933 - 1934 2 More Events
1937 28 Years Old Having completed her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago and having made the decision to pursue a career as a dancer and choreographer rather than as an academic, Dunham revived her dance ensemble and in 1937 journeyed with them to New York to take part in A Negro Dance Evening organized by Edna Guy at the 92nd Street YMHA. … Read More
1938 29 Years Old At this time Dunham first became associated with designer John Pratt, whom she later married. Together, they produced the first version of her dance composition L'Ag'Ya, which premiered on January 27, 1938, as a part of the Federal Theater Project in Chicago. … Read More


1939 30 Years Old In 1939, Dunham's company gave further performances in Chicago and Cincinnati and then went back to New York, where Dunham had been invited to stage a new number for the popular, long-running musical revue Pins and Needles 1940, produced by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. … Read More
1941 32 Years Old In the summer of 1941, after the national tour of Cabin in the Sky ended, they went to Mexico, where inter-racial marriages were less controversial than in the United States, and engaged in a commitment ceremony on 20 July, which thereafter they gave as the date of their wedding. … Read More
1943 34 Years Old The company returned to New York, and in September 1943, under the management of the renowned impresario Sol Hurok, her troupe opened in Tropical Review at the Martin Beck Theater. … Read More
1945 36 Years Old After the tour, in 1945, the Dunham company appeared in the short-lived Blue Holiday at the Belasco Theater in New York and in the more successful Carib Song at the Adelphi Theatre. … Read More
1946 37 Years Old In 1946, Dunham returned to Broadway for a revue entitled Bal Nègre, which received glowing notices from theater and dance critics.
1947 38 Years Old 1 More Event
Early in 1947 Dunham choreographed the musical play Windy City, which premiered at the Great Northern Theater in Chicago, and later in the year she opened a cabaret show in Las Vegas, during the first year that the city became a popular entertainment destination. … Read More
1948 39 Years Old In 1948, she opened A Caribbean Rhapsody first at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, then swept on to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. … Read More


1949 40 Years Old 1 More Event
…  She also became friends with, among others, Dumarsais Estimé, then a high-level politician, who became president of Haiti in 1949. … Read More
1950 41 Years Old In 1950, Sol Hurok presented Katherine Dunham and Her Company in a dance revue at the Broadway Theater in New York, with a program composed of some of Dunham's best works. … Read More


1960 - 1964 4 More Events
1965 56 Years Old The following year, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Dunham to be technical cultural adviser—that is, a sort of cultural ambassador—to the government of Senegal in West Africa. … Read More
1967 58 Years Old In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis as an attempt to use the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest.
1968 59 Years Old It served as a catharsis after the 1968 riots, during which she encouraged gang members in the ghetto to vent their frustrations with drumming and dance. … Read More


1976 67 Years Old In 1976 Dunham was guest artist-in-residence and lecturer for Afro-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. … Read More
1986 77 Years Old He continued as her artistic collaborator until his death in 1986. … Read More
2000 91 Years Old The highly respected Dance magazine did a feature cover story on Dunham in August 2000 entitled "One-Woman Revolution." … Read More
2006 97 Years Old On May 21, 2006, at the age of 96, Dunham died in her sleep from natural causes in New York City. … Read More
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