Anthropologist, dancer, choreographer, and social activist Katherine Dunham (1909–2006), born to an African-American father and a French-Canadian mother in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, became interested in dance at an early age.
While studying for a bachelor's degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago (where she also earned master's and doctoral degrees in anthropology), she completed field studies in the Caribbean and Brazil, where she became intimately familiar with dances and rituals of the black people of those tropical regions and created the Dunham Technique, which changed the European-dominated world of dance. She began choreographing Afro-Caribbean style dances for American dance companies. In 1940, she formed an all-black dance company, which toured and performed her original works, including Tropics and Le Jazz Hot (choreographed in 1937 and 1938, respectively). Although she faced critics who dismissed her Afro-Caribbean-influenced work as “primitive,” she became known as the Matriarch of Black Dance. She trained students, choreographed for Broadway stage productions and films, taught at Southern Illinois University, and was artistic and technical director to the president of Senegal. Under the pseudonym, Kaye Dunn, she wrote several articles and books on primitive dance in the world of modern choreography.
A human rights activist, Katherine staged a 47-day hunger strike in 1992 to bring attention to the plight and poverty of Haitian refugees.
Katherine received many honorary degrees, awards, and honors during her life, including the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Urban League Lifetime Achievement Award. She died at the age of 96 on May 21, 2006, in New York City.