As a college newspaper reporter in southern Illinois in 1971, I was assigned to interview a woman who somehow managed to teach street gang members how to dance. Her name was Katherine Dunham, and she had been arrested by police in East St. Louis while attending a meeting of some of her students, the Imperial Warlords.
I didn't mind talking to this choreographer, but going to East St. Louis was something else. The whole city was, as they said in those days, a ghetto. And Dunham's Performing Arts Training Center and Museum were located in the heart of it.
But here she was, at age 61, teaching guys who had been doing battle with police how to move across a stage like butterflies. Of the Warlords, she once said, "I wouldn't think of playing Beethoven when they dropped in at my apartment, but they really dig Karlheinz Stockhausen who was an avant-garde German composer ."
Backed by Southern Illinois University, her school had 1,000 students -- from preschoolers to grandmothers -- with about 100 of them working for college credit.
But there was more to her story than her teaching abilities. At the height of her career, Katherine Dunham was the toast of Broadway. She had achieved national renown in 1941 for her dance company's rendition of "Cabin in the Sky," which one reviewer called "the kinetic fusion of ritual elements from Africa and the Caribbean and modern Western innovations that captivated audiences."
Dunham will appear at 8 tonight at the Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery for a self-portrait lecture series. She will no doubt speak of her international experiences as a dancer, and probably will have a lot to say about her many years in Haiti.
In her book, "Island Possessed," published in 1969, she wrote about her more than 30-year relationship with the tortured island's rigid social structure, of its great natural beauty and of its leaders, "some benign, some despotic, many trapped by the events they themselves set in motion."
In 1979, Dunham received an Albert Schweitzer music award for her work in the arts and humanities, and in 1983 she was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Some said that she was able to accomplish this through voodoo. Reading her book made me wonder.
In it, she explains how the rites and rhythms of Haiti came to dominate her art and how, to satisfy her need to know more about her heritage, she became an initiate of voodoo.
"It's hard to describe to an uninitiated the process of becoming initiated," she wrote. "A thing happens, you experience it often without seeing it, and it is true. We began the ritual of the crossed and recrossed handclasp, the bow with knees flexed, turn under-arm, hounci [servitor of the gods] of highest protocol guiding the other.
"Then the turn to all four directions of the compass, hand gripped tightly in hand, with words spoken in each direction, the approach to the altar, the recognition of each grade of protocol by obeisance and word. . . . . I was not required to prostrate myself before the mambos [officiating priestesses] as is the practice, flat on the ground, face down, bracing oneself by toes and hands, body rigid, touching each cheek to the ground, swaying side to side. It was up to my instructors to decide what to do, and I followed them, asking no questions."
Whatever she had learned, it certainly worked. The charges against her in East St. Louis were dropped. Some gang members went on to become professional dancers. Dunham was already a legend in her own time, with more fame on the way. As for myself, I wrote about her and -- instead of having a curse put on me -- went on to get a job as a real reporter.