How Katherine Dunham Embodied Activism (and What It Means Now)

As political polarization intensifies, the choreographer's legacy offers the dance world a template.

Students at the annual Dunham Technique conference perform in downtown Chicago, July 2017. Photo: Bree Gant.

Those familiar with the legacy of Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) know that her choreography not only exposed her audiences to cultural material that had yet to reach the US during her time, but also ruffled the feathers of dignitaries in government and politics across the globe. Her bold and unapologetic approach to addressing political injustices through performance was considered as shocking as it was provocative, inspiring former company members, students and Dunham enthusiasts to follow her example into current times.

In her repertoire, one such inspiration is Dunham’s anti-lynching choreography for a piece called Southland. At the time of its premiere, in 1951, lynchings were legal in the American South. Southland thus proved one of Dunham’s most controversial political pieces.

Its plot, over two scenes, is complex. In one powerful scene, an African-American male dancer is mock-lynched from a magnolia tree. This choreographed trauma represents a lethal form of punishment for a crime against a white woman, a crime of which the male character is wrongly accused.

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Dunham waited to debut Southland until the last few days of her company’s two-week run in Chile, allowing time to draw public interest in their work. This strategic move boosted local audience attendance; she wanted as many people as possible to see Southland and to feel the effects of such emotionally jarring choreography.

As quoted in Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by artist-scholar Joanna Dee Das (also a certified instructor in Dunham technique), the choreographer said this, just before Southland’s premiere:

The person who truly loves his country is equally capable of seeing the good and the bad in it, and upon discovering the bad, should denounce it at the cost of his liberty and life.

Dunham’s message is clear: yes, lynching is real and unjustified. Yes, lynching still happens in my home country. Yes, we need to act against such atrocities. Dunham received various forms of backlash for airing America’s dirty laundry, as expected. This included the US State Department, which revoked funding for her company for an extended period of time.

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How does all of this apply to the here and now? As political polarization intensifies within our society, it is hard not to notice a repetitive resurfacing of the tiresome “if it didn’t happen to me, therefore it didn’t happen to anyone” rhetoric. In my experience, it has generally been those who do not directly encounter the systematic disenfranchisement that is woven into our political reality who seem to have a problem with those who experience it speaking out about it.

We have groups of people unknowingly or un-admittedly reaping benefits from an unjust system, exercising self-proclaimed entitlement over those oppressed by that very same system. More often than not, these folks are blinded by their own privilege, oblivious to the fact that they personify it. They offer up ill-informed “that couldn’t have actually happened” or “what are they complaining about, just get over it and move on” commentary.

Two questions:

  • How do we snip this out, so we can move forward with increased mutual understanding between people from different life paths?; and
  • What role does dance play toward that end?

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Many of us have attended a live performance and ended up shedding a tear, gasping in wonder or enjoying a belly-laugh. These are responses to the intentional and intimate relationship that performers create with the audience. With that connection in place, artists are empowered to deliver specific messages. With staged dance in particular, verbalization is often limited or absent altogether, leaving audiences to interpret the meaning of the physical forms of the body. Upon reading the body language and facial expressions of the dancers and then enjoying the pleasurable moment of “figuring it out,” there is a satisfying feeling. To many of us in the audience, that is one of the core reasons why we continue to seek out and attend dance performances.

These concepts of genuine connection translate to the dance classroom as well. I remember taking a class with Dunham in East St. Louis, IL, during which she remarked that we must not be “anonymous in our movement.” She wanted to see purpose, intention and feeling in our bodily motion, and we started this exercise by simply walking across the floor. Dunham kept asking us to go back and try walking again, over and over, repeatedly stating, “I don’t believe you.” At long last, she finally felt that we embodied something meaningful. We internally and collectively hailed a sigh of relief when she remarked:

Now I believe you.

Dunham celebrated the artist-as-scholar. Indeed, the alluring concept of utilizing the body as an instrument for social change was central to material presented at the 2018 Annual Dunham Symposium, entitled Dance as Politics: Katherine Dunham, Black Power and Black Arts, held in July at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago.

The point was expressed through choreography produced by several of Dunham’s students and by dancers from multiple generations, all embodying the dehumanization of people who face oppression — and allowing the audience a small window into that experience. For example, choreographers Keith Tyrone Williams and Heather Beal, who are also certified in Dunham technique, have produced works that draw attention to the disproportionate abuse and murder of African-American males by US law enforcement.

When this type of material is presented on stage, what privilege deemed invisible suddenly becomes visible. The dehumanized become human. The intense struggle endured by some on a daily basis thus becomes tangible to an audience that has never experienced these things, creating in many cases a unique form of empathy and compassion. It’s a powerful form of intercultural communication.