Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment, and Social Engagement

Advanced Seminar

June 6–11, 2010

Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment and Social EngagementKatherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment and Social EngagementKatherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment and Social Engagement

Read Michael Wade Simpson’s article Dancing in Radical Time (PDF, 3 MB) which appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican’s June 4th edition of the Pasatiempo.

“There are no end of legends about Katherine Dunham, who, as an African American dancer, anthropologist, writer, and activist, broke new ground wherever she placed her feet,” said Elizabeth Chin, chair of the extraordinary advanced seminar “Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance.” Perhaps best known as the first African American to found a major modern dance company, Dunham counted Alvin Ailey, Eartha Kitt, and Marlon Brando among her students. She was an accomplished anthropologist, having studied at the University of Chicago with Robert Redfield and Bronislaw Malinowski and at Northwestern University with Melville Herskovits. She did extensive fieldwork in the Caribbean, including Haiti, wrote several ethnographies, and nearly single-handedly invented the anthropology of dance as a field of serious inquiry. Part of the dynamic intellectual community of Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, which rivaled the historic importance of Harlem in the 1920s, Dunham’s circle included luminary scholars and artists such as St. Clair Drake, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Wright, Gordon Parks, and Nat King Cole. “Of abiding importance is Katherine Dunham’s research in the Caribbean in the mid-1930s,” said Chin, “particularly her immersion in and impact on the emergent school of ethnology and ‘mouvement folklorique’ in Haiti.”

Watch three short videos in the playlist

Despite these achievements, “the corpus of scholarship that seriously engages with Katherine Dunham’s anthropological work is astonishingly small,” said Chin. “Her writings are rarely read, her dance technique is rarely taught, and her contributions to the discipline are poorly understood.” This advanced seminar addressed the relative silence on Dunham’s work by bringing together a group of scholars and practitioners to examine the implications and applications of her ideas. The seminar used the consideration of Dunham’s life and work as a means to reappraise the understanding of three major concerns in the discipline: theoretical innovation, performative and textual experimentation, and activism and community engagement.

Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment and Social Engagement
Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance Colloquium
Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment and Social Engagement
Katherine Dunham and the Anthropology of Dance: Theory, Experiment and Social Engagement

Dunham insisted upon blurring genres and disciplinary boundaries, most visibly through her concept of “research to performance,” an approach that anticipated what has become known as performance studies and employed elements most often associated with the “postmodern turn” in anthropology. “In this her work is foundational,” said Chin, “arising directly out of the complex and contradictory experience of being a mixed-race woman whose negotiations with the academy and the artistic worlds of her time required her to at once embrace and assert race, gender, nationality, and sexuality in ways that led to a development of a distinct perspective on scholarly and artistic practice. This perspective is one shared by anthropologists of color who work in a discipline whose identifications of ‘us’ and ‘them’ remain problematic.”

All but one of the seminar’s participants were dancers, and all were trained as anthropologists. They were employed in a wide range of departments: anthropology, history, women’s studies, education, international studies, critical theory, and social justice. “Many of us came to anthropology through art, and as scholars we had to bury those parts of ourselves. We are trying to change that,” Chin said at the seminar’s colloquium, which incorporated music, dance, drumming, scholarship, and improvisational participation from the enthusiastic audience. Among the participants were Anindo Marshall, a scholar and dancer from Kenya who studied with Dunham for many years; Lynn Bolles, an expert on women’s studies and the anthropology of the Caribbean; Kate Ramsey, whose recent book focuses on performance movements in Port-au-Prince in the 1930s; and Robert Adams, who explores themes of race and diaspora in the context of globalization. Rosemarie Roberts brought unique experience with the “research to performance” approach.

“We seek to use the seminar and the work it produces to highlight what are still our ‘hidden histories.’ Engaging with the uniquely important contributions of scholars of color to our discipline remains important but unfinished business,” Chin said. “The rich and varied projects undertaken by Katherine Dunham are emblematic of these hidden histories; she still has much to teach us, and we are eager to learn from her and from each other, to follow her path, and to break new ground.”

As a part of the seminar week, Anindo Marshall offered a master dance class, open to the public, hosted by the National Dance Institute in Santa Fe.

Dr. Elizabeth Chin, Chair Professor, Department of Critical Theory and Social Justice, Occidental College, Los Angeles
Robert Adams Jr. Program Officer, Individual & Community Transformation, Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo
A. Lynn Bolles Women’s Studies Department, University of Maryland, College Park
Aimee Cox African American and African Diaspora Studies, Rutgers University, Newark
Dana Davis Queens College, Joseph Murphy Institute, New York
Anindo Marshall Department of Theater, Occidental College, Los Angeles
Kate Ramsey Department of History, University of Miami, Coral Gables
Rosemarie A. Roberts Education Department, Connecticut College, New London

Sponsored by Dobkin Family Foundation

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