Katherine Dunham and her Haitian legacy

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Katherine Dunham
Katherine Dunham

I knew little about Haiti when it was struck by the devastating earthquake [in 2010]. So I went to the source that everyone relies on these days: Google. I learnt about Haiti's bloody history as a former Spanish and French colony, and the slave revolt that brought independence. It is the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean and the only nation in the world established as a result of a successful slave revolt. Interesting facts. Another fact is that it was the sometime home of the pioneering black American dancer Katherine Dunham.


Dunham, who died at the age of 96 [in 2006], was an anthropologist and political activist, especially on behalf of the rights of black people. She was a remarkable woman, one of the first black American women to go to university, and a pioneer in dance anthropology, specialising in the African roots of Caribbean and American dance. She is best known for her Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the first independent black American dance company, which ran from 1939 to 1960. This company appeared in a number of films and also toured the world (including Australia and New Zealand in 1956-7), introducing audiences to an authentic and exotic repertoire of dancers developed out of her research, and casting aside rigid stereotypes of what black dance should look like. She was an actor, teacher, choreographer and director. She possessed not just brains, but beauty: when the impresario Sol Horuk was presenting her company on Broadway he ensured her legs for hundreds of thousands of dollars.


One of the main areas of Dunham's anthropological studies was Haiti. She stayed on the island several times. She was especially interested in the rituals of Haitian voodoo. She writes about the experience in her book called Island Possessed.


She was friends with some of the Haitian ruling elite, including two presidents. So deep with her feelings for the country that in 1993, at the age of 82, she went on a 47 day hunger strike to protest against the US's treatment of Haitian boat people, only ending it after exiled Haitian president John-Bertrand Aristide and others entreated her to stop.


Dunham owned a seven hectare property in Haiti, which she used as a retreat for herself and her company. Her ownership of this property was in itself a symbol of the turnaround in Haiti's fortunes. It had been owned previously by General Charles LeClerc, who was married to Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, Pauline. LeClerc was the man Napoleon sent into Haiti in an attempt to re-establish slavery during the Haitian revolution. It was LeClerc's defeat that finally brought about Haiti's independence.


Dunham leased part of the property for use as a fancy hotel, and it became an internationally renowned resort and playground for the rich. She lived in a separate house alongside it. The hotel flourished until 1983, a bizarre bubble of luxury in an extremely poor country, its guests sipping rum inside high walls protected from the slums by armed guards. One presumes it eventually declined with the fortunes of Haiti.


One happy result of this exclusive oasis was the preservation of a small section of rainforest. Everywhere else in the country the forest has been torn down. Plans are afoot, so I read, to officially preserve this patch of land as the Katherine Dunham Botanical Garden and Cultural Centre for the Arts. Some accounts I read about the property described it as seriously downgraded, "a haunted battlefield", littered with makeshift voodoo shrines, home to squatters and drug and gun runners. US Marines raided the property in 1994 in search of illegal stashes of weapons. But in 2007 the area within which Dunham's property is sited was designated public land and is now home to a memorial to the 2010 earthquake victims. I'm sure Dunham would have been pleased to know her Haitian retreat has been turned into a public place of peace.


Dunham settled in East St Louis, Illinois, in 1967, where she opened a performing arts training centre for the poor and disadvantaged. This has grown into the Katherine Dunham Centre for Arts and Humanities. It includes a museum with a collection of her Haitian, Caribbean and African instruments and artifacts; a replica of an African Village with African Huts and outdoor stage and The Children’s Workshop dance studio, a carriage house which was renovated in 1982. 


Katherine Dunham was certainly an extraordinary woman. The website for her centre is http://kdcah.org.


 To see an eary video of her dancing go to:




This article appeared as an editorial in the April May 2010 issue, shortly after the earthquake.




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