1948 November 29 - Photo portrait of Katherine Dunham and dance troupe, Keystone, Paris, 1948

Photo portrait of Katherine Dunham (right) and dance troupe, Keystone, Paris (November 29, 1948) | Unknown photographer /
Carl Guderian / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

On a Friday evening in September, I found myself at a Dunham Technique class, taught by Marcea Daiter, in the Alvin Ailey dance studios on 55th Street. As I waited for the class to start, I looked around at the large ballet studio with high ceilings beginning to fill with dancers from their late teens to early 50s, all with the comfortable air of regulars at the class, and took my position somewhere near the back. I had joined the class as part of my research on the choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham, and I was keenly conscious of my role in the class as what anthropologists call “participant-observer.” But once the lights dimmed and Marcea’s husband, the tambourier Jude Yatande Sanon, started drumming polyrhythms to invoke the Loas (the Haitian Vodou spirits), the academic distance I had assumed fell away. As we began to dance, I was a participating body, a little vulnerable and anxious, in an unfamiliar setting.

The Dunham Technique is a choreographic practice that fuses ballet technique with cultural dances from around the world, with an emphasis on those from the Caribbean. On the barre, we drill first, second, and third position, the fundamentals of ballet, retaining these positions in the lower half of the body while undulating our spines, a movement drawn from ritual dance to Damballa, the snake deity. Katherine Dunham developed the technique after studying Haitian Vodou in her work as an anthropologist. In fusing dance styles from across the African diaspora, Dunham sought to produce a unified vision of Black Dance; in placing these dances on international stages, she aimed to position Black dance alongside ballet in institutional prestige.

Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and opened her first dance school while she was still in her teens. In 1928, she joined the University of Chicago, where she met anthropologists whose approach would redefine their field, including A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Zora Neale Hurston. Dunham recognized ethnographic work as an opportunity to study dance, still her primary interest, through a cultural lens. She later explained, “In anthropology, I learned how to feel about myself in relation to other people … You can’t learn about dances until you learn about people.”

After receiving Rosenwald and Guggenheim research fellowships, Dunham travelled to the Caribbean for ethnographic fieldwork, recording social and ritual dance in Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad. She was particularly interested in the study of Haitian Vodou dance, a practice that accompanied Vodou as it emerged in Afro-Haitian communities amid the Atlantic slave trade from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. “Dance,” she later wrote, “is the most accurate chronicler of cultural pattern.” In studying it, she hoped to record the continuity of African culture amongst the Caribbean diaspora.

In 1936, Dunham became one of the first Black women to earn a Bachelor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. After graduating, she moved away from academia, toward a career in dance and choreography, convinced that “it is not the investigation and recording of field material that is important, but rather some practical, tangible evidence of its use and translation.” Her comment anticipates, by some 20 years, postmodern anthropology’s emphasis on how cultures change—and the role of anthropologists as “translators” who inevitably transform the culture they seek to represent.

Her choreographic practice stands in stark contrast to her ethnographic writings. In keeping with structural-functionalist theories of anthropology popular at the time, Dunham’s academic research approaches culture as something that remains the same; accordingly, she characterizes Vodou rituals and dances as unchanging and ahistorical. But her choreography is a deliberate act of cultural transformation. The Dunham Technique draws from a range of Black dance styles and ballet to produce something new.

At the Alvin Ailey studios, Marcea teaches according to Dunham’s own pedagogy, which is passed down through the Dunham School in St. Louis. After Marcea explains the historical and cultural context of the movements, we move into a warm-up on the floor, featuring pelvic contractions, yogic breathing, and isolations and undulations of the arms, torso, and waist. We exhale and tip our spines over our legs, heads to the ground. We inhale and ripple our spines from our waists to our heads, then exhale and release back to the floor. We repeat this move in a clockwise motion around the room. The circular repetition and quickening tempo support the loss of my subjectivity. I forget about my insecurities and focus on the breath oscillating within my torso.

We move to the barre, incorporating spinal undulations with ballet technique, contracting, releasing, falling, recovering. We plié, jeté, relevé, and ronde de jambe the legs, in the tense, contracted form of ballet.

Marcea instructs us in the dance to Damballa, the Vodou snake deity. This is the only time I hear Jude speak, to say, “Make sure you get this move down—and on beat.” The best dancer in the class tells us to imagine how a snake would propel itself forward without legs, and to whisper sssssss as we do it. She dances sinuously, hissing, her arms wrapping around her head, her legs moving in unison. Though familiar with the basic elements of ballet, I struggle to dance multiple rhythms in different parts of my body. I’m probably off beat. The wave-like energy becomes stuck, I’m focusing too hard and the movements stop flowing easily, as I try to integrate what I’ve learnt in ballet—to hold tension in my body—with the releases and continual undulations demanded by Damballa.

Damballa, a male deity, invokes sexual energy and demands female dancers grounded in their own sensuality for worship. I understand the movement in my mind but not my body. I practice until I don’t need to think about my feet. I meditate on the snake, trusting, as I’m told, that my body already knows the movement somewhere in my spine. I practice at home in my bedroom mirror for evenings afterwards, hissing and snaking my spine, trying to seduce my own reflection. Sometime after 11 p.m., my mind quiets, and I almost think I feel the snake movement in my spine.

The imaginal quality needed to transform the body in order to learn the technique is clear. Attempts to translate the perspectives of other beings—through Vodou, dance, or writing—always incorporate both the concepts of both the translator and the translated. The result is a movement; a transformation.

This is something dancers know instinctively. To learn to dance, the dancer must be able to imagine something beyond the self, and to believe that she can embody it in her movements. When I dance to Damballa, the choreography assumes I have the capacity to imagine what it is like to be a snake and transform that into movement. It doesn’t matter that nobody would mistake me for an actual snake. This is very different from the self-doubt of the anthropologist, whose starting position is that of the outsider who cannot embody, only observe, the perspective of her research subjects.

Joyce Aschenbrenner described Dunham as “matriarch and queen mother of Black dance,” and she is credited as a major contributor to the development of modern American dance in general. Her original compositions L’Ag’Ya (1938), Tropical Revue (1944), and Bal Nègre (1946), were critically well-received, and her rendition of George Balanchine’s Cabin in the Sky ran for 20 weeks in New York. The Katherine Dunham School in New York, which ran classes in dance and the humanities, boasts prominent alumni, including Eartha Kitt, Frances Taylor Davis, and James Dean, in a testament to Dunham’s influence as a pioneer of Black arts and leading cultural figure.

Dunham’s cultural advocacy of Black dance was nonetheless complicated. She was critical of dancers of her time such as Pearl Primus and Josephine Baker; she accused the latter of “uncurbed racial expression,”which she considered less worthy of acclaim because of its distance from formal ballet technique. Meanwhile, Dunham herself borrowed practices from Caribbean cultures and recalibrated them for display at Western institutions with mostly white audiences. She frequently referred to Caribbean dance as “primitive” in her notes on dance and Island Possessed(1969) and used this term to sell tickets to her shows, with posters for Tropical Revue promising “voodoo!” and “primitive rites!” Dunham did not address questions of appropriation in her writing. Instead, she characterizes herself as seeking to turn her “thirst for knowledge to a way of service,” which she sought to achieve through choreography and advocacy.

Within the discipline of anthropology, however, her work is rarely discussed. I think this overlooks her important contributions to the discipline through dance-as-anthropology. Her choreography exemplifies the ethos that more recent theorists such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro call for: an acknowledgment that the work of the anthropologist always involves, and should actively engender, the creative translation of cultural concepts.

The possibilities open to an anthropologist engaging with her fieldwork in a creative way is what drew me to the Dunham Technique in the first place. And in the dance studio, her research is still underway today, as we dance with Marcea, move, and transform.