Before the last century was half over, Katherine Dunham had done it all: Starred on Broadway. Choreographed for Hollywood. Formed a groundbreaking company to perform what was then a brave new art form: Afro-Caribbean dance. As both a dancer and an anthropologist, Dunham mined the Caribbean for native dances, developing from them her own method. "Dunham technique," like that of Martha Graham, is part of the bedrock of American modern dance. Through her own interpretive beauty as a performer and her legendary rigor as a teacher, she brought African-based dance to the level of high art.
But more than a technique, Dunham's way of dancing is also a way of life. At 93, she is still active. As part of the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference, she ventured to Howard University this past winter to teach a two-hour master class. Seated in a wheelchair but no less imposing, Dunham quickly got down to basics, lingering on breathing and posture before putting the nearly 100 students through a punishing routine of rhythm, focus and force.
She was interviewed recently at her New York apartment about her teaching, her beliefs and the power of dance.
Q: What is the most important lesson that you teach?
A: Everyone is trying to outdo someone but in an external way. I hope to bring to the people I teach, or who have seen me dance or hear me talk, a feeling of wholeness. I like the idea of body, mind and spirit. It's on this principle that I work. You must know your body. And your spirit has to bring to what you are doing something that is special that is you. I feel that is terribly important. Someone can leap higher than someone else, but that's not the point. It's spirit, the you part of you, that is different from anybody else. That, I think, is terribly important. I don't want them to imitate me. I want them to understand about their bodies and the motion of their bodies.
Why is dance important?
Everybody dances. You take Bushmen, you take Eskimos, you name it. There is a need in the body to express itself. Every culture has its own form of physical expression. An unfortunate thing about today is that Western dance -- our dance -- is too competitive in feeling. I don't dance because I can do this movement better than you. I do it because it's what I feel and want to do.
Everybody wants to belong. The Bushmen shuffle around a center pole for hours on end. An Eskimo will dance to express his joy at having killed a walrus. Other people will dance for sexual expression. Other people will dance for the ecstasy of a sudden moment of unity with nature. Others will dance because they are so grief-stricken at the death of someone that they have to move. And if the movement is rhythmic it gives them more of a feeling of unity and of belonging.
Do you feel your legacy is being safeguarded?
I used to worry about it and I'd feel depressed because I'd see it wasn't being understood as I wanted it to be. Now I don't feel that way. I see that I began something that has taken root in different places in different parts of the world: the Dunham way of life. Body, mind and spirit, understanding the self, and the desire to create rather than compete. It will have to prove itself if it's of value.
What do you think of dance today?
It's a real job to recognize dance at all. We have to love ourselves, love what we are doing, and find a way to express these things in unity with other people. Then it will be honest and true and authentic.
[More entertainment-based work] will go under the title "dance" and will satisfy a lot of people, but the discerning person will realize that a great deal has been lost and will never be recovered.