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It seems almost impossible that Katherine Dunham's remarkable life, filled with accomplishments in diverse fields, could have been lived by only one person. As an innovator and artist, she had few peers. It is revealing that Miss Dunham has been universally studied, written about, and praised across disciplines, not only from expected perspectives of dance and the arts, but also through the lenses of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Her life and her work uniquely encompassed the academic and the popular while transcending the boundaries we usually erect between high and mass culture.
Young Katherine Dunham and her brother, Albert Dunham Jr., ca. 1920.Katherine Dunham was born in 1909 to an African American father (Albert Dunham Sr.) and a mother (Fanny Taylor Dunham) who was described as French Canadian with Indian heritage. Although Katherine was born at a hospital in Chicago, the family actually lived in nearby Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Her mother died when Katherine was four years old, and she and her brother (Albert Dunham Jr.) lived temporarily with their aunt on the south side of Chicago. When Katherine was six years old, she and her brother moved with their father and a new stepmother to Joliet, Illinois.
A Life in Profile
Dunham Dance Technique
Film Career
Global Activist
Collections and Conservation

While living in Chicago, Dunham was present during the influx of African Americans fleeing the South. She saw firsthand the ugly realities that people faced trying to escape Jim Crow by moving to northern cities. She further witnessed the injustices imposed on blacks who were not welcomed in the North, being forced to live in segregated communities in subpar housing structures and to work at menial jobs in order to provide sustenance for their families.

In 1941, Miss Dunham defied cultural norms of the United States by marrying the Canadian-born designer John Thomas Pratt. They met when Pratt was the supervisor of the costume department at the Federal Theater in New York. In an interview with Pratt in 1981, Vèvè A. Clark perfectly described his role with the Dunham Company as technical advisor and consulting director of the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research. Pratt described his designs for Miss Dunham as dynamic, and his main concern was that the costumes provided freedom of movement. Often working with a tight budget, Pratt created costumes by piecing together recycled material. Except for the three years during the mid-1940s that he served in the military, Pratt choreographed almost all of Dunham’s performances throughout her career. Miss Dunham admitted during the process of donating her collections to the Missouri Historical Society (Item History File) that she did not always appreciate the body of work that went into creating her costumes. In speaking about the Afrique headdress, she said:

At the start of my career, I am afraid that I did not sufficiently appreciate such accessories as jewelry, headdresses, hats, gloves, slippers, hose, which, as I remember dressing rooms and quick changes, and scan our photograph collection, were extremely important.

It could be that the accessories were gleaned from Salvation Army shops or flea markets. Now and then, there was an outrageous expenditure like the “Batucada” Chanel designed, necklace of stars.

The black silk braids that formed the body of the “Afrique” headdress were made by hand and decorated with gold beads. The fringe over the eyebrows descended over both ears, then continued to a much longer layer of braids in back. The effect in motion was of an Egyptian Queen, though there was not one provenance or identification.

At times, I felt Etruscan or even Sumerian. But once with singers and drummers and the four men who supported me in neo-African clothing and décor, I conceded my headdress to be that of a stylized Rastafarian. The swing beads were a pleasure to accent stomach and head movements.

Pratt understood Miss Dunham better than any choreographer and designed her costumes with her movements in mind. She did learn to appreciate the efforts that Pratt made to enhance her image. In a further description of one of her more controversial performances (choreographed in 1938), Barrel House Blues, Miss Dunham talks about how the material was designed to move with her body while she performed the “shimmy”:

The “Barrel House” shimmy costume was notorious for its electric blue body shape with rings of jet black beads, graduating in length from a little over an inch at the throat of the dress to three inches at the bottom hemline. This was a great help in the steady half rotation, the first movement of the “twist,” being toe ending in a second movement, weight dropped to the heel, the strength of the “twist” would cause these circles of black jet beads to whirl halfway round, then stop with a jolt when shifting weight. This movement became, in my estimation, the source of Chubby Checker’s “Twist,” and the costume itself [was] designed by my husband, John Pratt, who designed practically all the costumes and scenery of our several shows for the company and myself.

In 1952, Dunham and Pratt adopted a four-year-old child, Marie-Christine, who was living in a Catholic convent in Paris. According to Joyce Aschenbrenner (an anthropologist and Dunham biographer), when Marie-Christine was old enough she traveled with the dance company, but returned to the convent to attend school. She was later enrolled in Swiss boarding schools and would join her parents on holidays and vacations.

Through her family Miss Dunham was influenced by multiple art forms. Her father was a guitarist, and her cousin introduced young Katherine to live theatrical performances and stage plays. Miss Dunham learned modern dance in high school and went on to produce, direct, and perform in a “cabaret party” fundraiser for a local African Methodist Episcopal church. At the age of eighteen, Miss Dunham began the study of ballet under Ludmila Speranzeva, one of the few instructors at the time who accepted black students.

>> Click on each image to see a larger view. <<

Marie-Christine (daughter), ca 1960. Photograph by Georges Pierre.  Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection. Marie-Christine (daughter), ca 1960.

Marie-Christine, daughter of Katherine Dunham and John Pratt, ca. 1953. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection.

Katherine Dunham and John Pratt (her husband and theatrical designer), 1939. Photograph by (Lette) Valeska, Los Angeles.  Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection.
Katherine Dunham and John Pratt (her husband and theatrical designer)
Katherine Dunham portrait, signed "To Albert with many wishes for happiness and much love from Katherine." 1934. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection. Katherine Dunham portrait.
Portrait of Albert Dunham Jr., 1926. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection. Portrait of Albert Dunham Jr., 1926
Young Katherine Dunham and her brother, Albert Dunham Jr., ca. 1920. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection.
Young Katherine Dunham and her brother, Albert Dunham Jr., ca. 1920.
Albert Dunham Sr. (father) on porch, n.d. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection. Albert Dunham Sr. (father).
Fanny Taylor Dunham (mother) holding baby, Albert Jr. (brother), ca. 1910. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collection.
Fanny Taylor Dunham (mother) holding baby, Albert Jr. (brother), ca. 1910.
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