Why don't you know about Katherine Dunham? I don't know. Maybe it's because dance and choreography are living arts - ones difficult to tend after aging or death of an artist. Dunham's legacy, however, is much more than that of a dancer/choreographer - she is now most remembered for the books she left behind, her work in ethno- and dance anthropology, and her boundless life and energy.
Dancer, choreographer, social anthropoligist, writer, icon. A seminal modern dancer and choreographer, a chronicler of culture. Dunham traveled to Haiti to study dance and ritual. What she brought back was the material for her detailed account of voudoun, its culture and ritual, Island Possessed, as well as music and dance language that became part of her idiom as a dancer and choreographer.
Ms. Dunham was a multi-disciplinary artist when there were none. She was a mixed hertiage woman who explored and honoured her ancestry. She gave many the gift of dance through her school, and her company. She performed in the United States and Europe, and ran her own self-supporting dance company (something still nearly impossible in the United States almost a century later), and lent her talents, and those of her company to Hollywood.
A carrier of her lineage, she brought the physical expressions of the cultures she explored into mainstream dance in ways that have affected all who came after her. She forged her own language of dance - the Dunham Technique - which is still taught today. There'd be no Alvin Ailey at all if it weren't for Ms. Dunham's company. I'd stretch to say there'd be no hip hop dance class at your local Y if it weren't for Ms. Dunham - possibly, even no So You Think You Can Dance.
Some people turn earth, plant seeds, water, tend seedlings, and end up growing a forest they never see. I think Katherine Dunham was one of those people.
(Here's a nice interview with Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey.)
(If you'd like to be a guest blogger in the Women You Should Know series, contact me with your idea for who you'd like to profile! Ground rules: Non-living female, not a household name, no more than 500 words.)