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Guide to the Photograph Collection on Katherine Dunham
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Important Information for Researchers
  • Historical Background
  • Bibliography
  • Collection Scope and Content Summary
  • Collection Arrangement
  • Related Collections
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Photograph collection on Katherine Dunham
    Date: 1938-1959
    Collection Number: MS-P047
    Extent: 1.6 linear feet (3 boxes and 4 oversized folders)
    Languages: The collection is in English, German, French, and Spanish.
    Repository: University of California, Irvine. Library. Special Collections and Archives.
    Irvine, California 92623-9557
    Abstract: This collection comprises approximately 875 photographs of Katherine Dunham, the renowned dancer, choreographer, teacher, anthropologist, and humanitarian, and of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. The collection contains photographic prints, proofs, contact sheets, and postcards depicting performances, rehearsals, portraits publicity efforts, and candid moments. The collection also contains typewritten letters concerning payment for photographs and other logistical matters of the Company.

    Important Information for Researchers


    The collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Property rights reside with the University of California. Literary rights are retained by the creators of the records and their heirs. For permissions to reproduce or to publish, please contact the Head of Special Collections and Archives.

    Preferred Citation

    Photograph collection on Katherine Dunham. MS-P047. Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California. Date accessed.
    For the benefit of current and future researchers, please cite any additional information about sources consulted in this collection, including permanent URLs, item or folder descriptions, and box/folder locations.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2001 and 2004.

    Processing History

    Processed by Audrey Pearson, 2007.

    Historical Background


    Katherine Dunham was a choreographer, dancer, teacher, writer, anthropologist, social activist, and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She was the creator of the Dunham Technique, which blends African and Caribbean-based rhythm with classical movement and greatly influenced American modern dance.
    Born in 1909, Dunham came from a multi-ethnic background. Her mother was of Native American, French Canadian, English, and possibly African ancestry, and her father was of Madagascan and West African ancestry. This multi-ethnicity contributed to Dunham's interest in the culture and dances of Africa and the West Indies. She was also inspired early in life by the Terpsichorean Club at her high school, which taught modern dance techniques based on the ideas of Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf von Laban, and by her ballet studies with Russian ballerina Ludmilla Speranzeva.
    Dunham attended the University of Chicago to study anthropology. There she earned a Rosenwald Fellowship to travel to the West Indies to undertake research on Caribbean dance cultures. This first-hand experience developed into her master's thesis, entitled "The Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form, and Function." While in Chicago, Dunham continued to pursue dance and formed one of the first African American ballet companies, Ballet Nègre, as well as a dance school, the Negro Dance Group. She was also a member of the Works Progress Administration's Mid-West Federal Writers' Project.
    In 1938 Dunham left the university to pursue dancing and choreography in New York. There she formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, one of the first self-supporting African American dance companies. From the early 1940s until the mid-1960s, the Company toured as a concert dance group, introducing African and Caribbean dance and culture to United States and international audiences. Many of the works performed were dance representations of Caribbean, African, or American cultural events. Dunham's most celebrated choreographed pieces included L'Ag'Ya, a story of a tragic love triangle based on a Martinique fighting dance; Barrelhouse, an Americana piece based on a Florida swamp shimmy; and Shango, based on a vodoun ritual. During this time Dunham also choreographed and danced in a number of Hollywood movies, including Stormy Weather (1943).
    In 1946 Dunham returned to New York and founded the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research. The school's emphasis was on interdisciplinary study and included the Dunham School of Dance and Theater, the Department of Cultural Studies, and the Institute for Caribbean Research. Courses included general anthropology, introductory psychology, ballet, modern dance, history of drama, and Caribbean folklore. Among students who attended the school were James Dean, Peter Gennaro, Marlon Brando, Chita Rivera, Eartha Kitt, and José Ferrer.
    Dunham continued to tour with her company from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. Later in life she took on the role of humanitarian and scholar, living in Haiti for a time, serving as an adviser to the cultural ministry of Senegal, and working as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University, where she later became professor and director of the Performing Arts Training Center. In 1983 Dunham was awarded a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor alongside Frank Sinatra and James Stewart for her lifetime contribution to the arts and American culture. She also received the United States National Medal of the Arts in dance in 1989 "for her pioneering explorations of Caribbean and African dance, which have enriched and transformed the art of dance in America."
    Dunham was also known for taking political stands. In 1944 she informed her audience in Lexington, Kentucky that she would never dance there again because it was a segregated theater. In 1951 her troupe performed Southland, a controversial piece in which a black man hangs from a rope while a woman sings the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit." Remarkably, at the age of 82, Dunham staged a 47-day hunger strike in protest of the United States ordering the return of starving Haitian refugees to Haiti. She ended the strike only after a visit from the ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
    Dunham died in 2006 at the age of 96.

    Biography/Organization History


    1909 June 22 Katherine Mary Dunham born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
    1928 Entered University of Chicago.
    1933 Appeared with Chicago Opera in La Guiablesse.
    1935 Awarded a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship and began fieldwork in West Indies.
    1936 Earned Ph.B. in Social Anthropology from University of Chicago.
    1938 Federal theater performance of L'Ag'Ya.
    1939 Choreographed Carnival of Rhythm (Warner Bros.).
    1940 Choreographed and performed Cabin in the Sky.
    1940 Formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.
    1940-1941 First U.S. tour with Cabin in the Sky.
    1941 Married John Pratt.
    1941-1947 Second tour in United States and Canada, choreographed and performed Tropical Revue, Carib Song.
    1942 Choreographed Pardon My Sarong (Universal Pictures).
    1942 Appeared in Star Spangled Rhythm (Paramount Pictures).
    1943 Choreographed and appeared in Stormy Weather (Twentieth-Century Fox).
    1945 Opened Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York.
    1947-1949 Toured Mexico and Europe.
    1948 Choreographed and appeared in Casbah (Universal Pictures).
    1950 Toured South America.
    1950 Appeared in Botta e Riposta (Ponti-De Laurentiis).
    1950 Purchased Habitation Leclerc.
    1951-1953 Toured Europe, North Africa.
    1951 Adopted four-year-old Marie-Christine.
    1954 Choreographed and appeared in Mambo (Paramount Pictures).
    1954 Choreographed and appeared in Liebes Sender (Germany).
    1955 Choreographed and appeared in Música en la Noche (Mexico).
    1956-1957 Toured South Pacific and Far East.
    1957 Wrote A Touch of Innocence.
    1958 Choreographed Green Mansions (M.G.M.).
    1959-1960 Third European tour.
    1960 Choreographed and appeared in German television special Karaibishe Rhythmen.
    1962 Bamboche opened after recruitment in Morocco.
    1963 Choreographed Aida.
    1964 Choreographed "Sodom and Gemorah" scene in The Bible (De Laurentiis / Twentieth-Century Fox / Seven Arts).
    1964-1965 Artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
    1964-1965 Choreographed Faust.
    1965 Dissolved company to become adviser to the cultural ministry of Senegal.
    1966 Offered training, choreographed for Ballet National de Senegal.
    1966 Represented United States at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar.
    1967 Jailed in East St. Louis for disorderly conduct following a meeting with local gang members promoting her Performing Arts Training Center to inner-city youth.
    1979 International opening of the Katherine Dunham Museum.
    1980 CBS grant for Children's Workshop.
    1982 Retired from Southern Illinois University.
    1983 Received Kennedy Center Honors Award.
    1986 Husband John Pratt died.
    1991-1992 Fasted for Haitian refugees.
    2006 May 21 Died of natural causes at age 96.


    Aschenbrenner, Joyce. Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
    Beckford, Ruth. Katherine Dunham: A Biography. New York: M. Dekker, 1979.
    Dunham, Katherine. Dances of Haiti. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, 1983.
    Dunham, Katherine. Island Possessed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.
    Dunham, Katherine. Journey to Accompong. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1971.
    Dunham, Katherine. A Touch of Innocence. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959.
    Harnan, Terry. African Rhythm -- American Dance: A Biography of Katherine Dunham. New York: Knopf, 1974.

    Collection Scope and Content Summary

    This collection comprises approximately 875 photographs of Katherine Dunham and of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. The collection contains photographic prints, proofs, contact sheets, and postcards depicting performances, rehearsals, portraits, publicity efforts, and candid moments of Dunham's third European tour (1959-1960), tour of South America (1950), and some American performances. Particularly well represented are stage performances of L'Ag'Ya, Bahiana, Barrelhouse, Rites de Passage, Tropics, and Veracruzana. Of Dunham's feature films, only Mambo (1954) is represented within the collection. A few photographers are identified; if not stated, the photographer is unknown. The collection also contains typewritten letters concerning payment for photographs and other logistical matters of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.

    Collection Arrangement

    This collection is arranged in four series.
    • Series 1. Publicity photographs, circa 1951-1959, undated. 0.6 linear feet
    • Series 2. Performance photographs, 1938-1954, undated. 0.6 linear feet
    • Series 3. Backstage and candid photographs, 1949-1954. 0.3 linear feet
    • Series 4. Correspondence, 1952-1959. 0.1 linear feet

    Related Collections

    Photographs, writings, and video recordings of Katherine Dunham and her dance company are also held by New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Library of Congress, the Missouri Historical Society, and the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    Dunham, Katherine -- Archives.
    Dunham, Katherine -- Photographs.
    Katherine Dunham Company -- Archives.
    Katherine Dunham Company -- Photographs.
    African Americans in the performing arts -- Photographs.
    African American dance -- Photographs.
    Dancers -- United States -- Photographs.
    Choreographers -- United States -- Photographs.
    Dance -- Archives.
    Dance -- Photographs.
    Modern dance -- Photographs.
    Dance photography -- History -- Sources.

    Genres and Formats of Materials

    Photographic prints -- 20th century.
    Contact sheets -- 20th century.
    Postcards -- 20th century.
    Letters -- 20th century.