Janelle Smith-Ings celebrating Katherine Dunham

I used to want the words ‘She tried’ on my tombstone. Now I want ‘She did it.”

-Katherine Dunham

A movement pioneer, Katherine Dunham brought forth the use of ethnic choreography in a European dominated dance world.  As a young girl born and raised in Chicago, Katherine spent her time singing in church and earned her bachelors, masters, and doctoral in anthropology degrees from The University of Chicago, as the first African American woman to attend the University.  During her time in school, as a young adult, she began her dance training under Ludmilla Speranzeva, Mark Turbyfill, and Ruth Page.  Katherine eventually established her performing company and was granted money to travel and research dance. She chose to spend her time in the Caribbean studying the movements and motivations of their dance styles, applying her anthropology skills to movement research.  She took her research findings back to the United States, and broke ground by unveiling the anthropological dance movements she developed from her studies. Known as the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” Katherine eventually established her own dance school in Chicago, then shortly after moved to New York City, where she established the Dunham School and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.  This was the first African American modern dance company established, and it launched the careers of many famous dancers, including Alvin Ailey. Dunham established herself as a pioneer and leader.  She performed, educated, choreographed, directed and has won many awards around the world for her work, including a Kennedy Center Honor and the National Medal of Arts.  You can still find her technique being taught and used in the ever evolving world of dance. 

Janelle Smith-Ings honoring Katherine Dunham

“I studied Dunham intensely with Joan Peters who was one of the three people approved by Ms. Dunham to become certified as a Dunham instructor.  Katherine Dunham’s movement is essential for she brought the beauty of African and Caribbean dance to the concert stage. Dunham’s technique is extremely challenging and by far the hardest technique class I have ever taken. The movement instills endurance and grace. I definitely believe the movement has influenced me as a choreographer which I pass down to my own students as I teach. I believe dance history is vital to dancers. Today, dancers are veering from traditional techniques, which are the foundation for more contemporary dance. It is essential they learn historical and cultural contexts of dance origins to ensure dance doesn’t become over-commercialized and lose its integrity as an art. “

-Janelle Smith-Ings

Adjunct Professor at William and Mary, Dance Educator at the Governor’s School of the Arts, Norfolk