Illustration by Maria Manhattan
Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago and raised in Joliet, Illinois. As a young person she began dance training in a kind of free form modern dance and then studied ballet with Mark Turbyfill of the Chicago Opera, the Russ dancer Ludmilla Speranzeva, and Ruth Page. She founded the first African American dance company, the Ballet Negre, which later became the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.
A choreographer, dancer, and scholar, Dunham received an M.A. and later a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Chicago where she became interested in exploring the potential of dance to foster understanding between cultures. She is best known for incorporating African American, Caribbean, African, and South American traditional movement styles and themes into her ballets. In 1983, she was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 2000, she was named one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: the first 100” by the Dance Coalition.