Did You Know Famed Choreographer Katherine Dunham Was Born on This Day?

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This Day In History: June 22nd

World-renowned dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham, become known for her unique dance interpretation skills during the 1930s. Dunham even opened her own dance and theater companies to nurture the talents of future generations of performers. 

Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She realized her interest in dance early on in life but did not pursue it seriously until college. However, while studying at the University of Chicago, Dunham attended a lecture on anthropology and was introduced to the concept of dance as a cultural symbol for the first time. This pushed her to study the roots of African dance and she traveled to the Caribbean in 1935 to conduct research. 

After learning more about movements and expressions, Dunham returned the following year and began to incorporate the new knowledge into her dance repertoire. She started her first dance school during the 1940s and notable alumni consist of Eartha Kitt and Marlon Brando.

Due to Dunham’s influence, African dance began to receive the deserved respect as a true art form. She was even labeled the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” and originated the Dunham Technique. Dunham successfully fused Caribbean dances, traditional ballet and African rituals into her technique.

Her dancing abilities opened the door for a variety of diverse opportunities. She was able to appear in Broadway performances and feature films while continuing to choreograph and tour internationally. Dunham made her business an international name as well by opening schools in Paris and Rome. She also used her platform to promote social change.  In 1992, Dunham participated in a 47-day hunger strike on behalf of Haitian refugees in the United States.  

Dunham died on May 21, 2006, in New York City. Throughout her career, she earned several honorary doctorates and accolades including the Kennedy Center Honors Award, a National Medal of Arts and a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

Her legacy continues on through the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities. The Katherine Dunham Museum is also home to more than 250 African and Caribbean artifacts that Dunham collected over the years. The museum also features an extensive video archive, old programs, letters, awards, and more. 

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