In Practice: Book Review: Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das

By Sima Belmar


The first time I met dance historian Joanna Dee Das was either at an event she curated when she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Stanford or in a dance class at Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Das is a dance scholar and a dancer. Her academic credentials hail from Columbia University and NYU, and her dance pedigree traces back to classes in the Dunham technique beginning at age 12. She is currently Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis and is certified in the Dunham technique. This is all to say that readers of Das’ book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press 2017), can trust that Dunham’s story is told from a multimodal, deeply personal, massively archival, and blessedly embodied point of view. Das offers a balanced and loving account of a complex person living and dancing across complex times (nearly a century, 1909-2006). She presents Dunham’s history as a deft and daring navigation of a uniquely American tangle of racial, gender, and class norms.

Das is trained as an historian so the book, though academic, is not laden with impenetrable theory. The concept of diaspora, more specifically, “a politics of diaspora” (2), is Das’ theoretical, historical, and analytical framework as performed, taught, and lived by Dunham. Das writes, “While many theorists have invoked long-standing, historical, or even blood-memory cultural connections to Africa as the foundation for diaspora, a politics of diaspora also involves the conscious refashioning of existing cultural forms and even the creation of new ones” (3). In other words, the concept of a politics of diaspora allows us to witness how Dunham negotiated the suffocating binaries of her era—high/low, traditional/contemporary, popular/artistic, authentic/theatrical, pure/hybrid, black/white, body/mind, dance/academia—as well as reckon with the ways hierarchical relations between these oppositional categories continue to hold sway today despite the daily unmasking of their instability and insufficiency.

Das demonstrates how Dunham worked to legitimize dance as an embodied intellectual pursuit, simultaneously reinforcing associations between black people and bodily skill and challenging the notion that bodily knowledge constitutes something anti-intellectual.

Dunham emerges as an expert navigator of the choppy seas of her identity as a black feminist anthropologist-dancer-choreographer, one who brought “dance into the conversation about how to build a sustainable cultural foundation for political activism” (2). Though Das is unflinching in her exposition of the less heroic aspects of Dunham’s actions and belief systems, we nevertheless encounter Dunham as a force to be reckoned with, a human being, flawed and fantastic all at once, and an incontrovertible matriarch of modern dance.

Das does not merely analyze Dunham’s choreographic output. Rather, she investigates her performances, her institutional legacy, and her personal life as “interrelated spheres of action” (4). In doing so, she charts Dunham’s social and aesthetic compromises and sacrifices, naming her successful strategy for surviving and thriving “aesthetics as politics” (4). Das’ close analysis of Dunham’s choreographic strategies—the dancers she worked with, the movement vocabulary, spatial relations, music—serves as a model for dance writers of all stripes: the movement is the method and the message. Being able to see those choices and understand them in the context of broader choreographic, kinesthetic, social, cultural, and political histories is what makes Das such a deft “reader” of Dunham’s work.

The book offers a clear chronological account of Dunham’s personal and professional history. We learn that Dunham was an academic, a writer, a memoirist, and an activist in addition to being a dancer, choreographer, film star, and director. Das explains that Dunham’s memoir A Touch of Innocence, written in 1958, “reveals how dance became one of Dunham’s tools for survival, a personal narrative that she would then theorize and apply to people of African descent more broadly” (13). Readers travel along an artistic journey marked by a collision of black vaudeville and Hollywood, European ballet and American modern dance, with the addition of a rigorous and rich experience with dances of the African diaspora. But even this isn’t quite the way to put it because the point Das drives home is that all of Dunham’s aesthetic choices constitute and reflect a diasporic consciousness.

Das’ patient exploration of the ways critics received Dunham’s work teaches us a valuable lesson in witnessing dance today. In her discussion of minstrelsy, she explains that “the shows often contained ‘hidden transcripts’ that powerfully critiqued existing social structures, but they still overwhelmingly signified ‘racist humiliation and self-denigration’ in the public imagination of both black and white Americans” (21). I take this as a reminder to always ask myself when I watch any performance, do I really know what I’m looking at? Do I really know how to see this? To answer these questions does not necessarily require deep powers of analysis; in fact, those powers are always culturally specific and when wielded, often sink dance criticism further into the abyss of ignorance.

Overall, Das highlights the ways Dunham’s artistic production both conformed to and challenged ethnic, racial, and gender narratives in the US in the 20th century. She points out the scholarly “point of contention” around “the question of authenticity and its relationship to theatrical presentation” (30). She explains the ways Dunham and other artists of color in the 1920s and 1930s “used the discourse of primitivism to critique US empire and neocolonialism, even as, contradictorily, they ended up reinforcing problematic categories and romanticized notions of primitive life” (31). And she explains the Janus-faced nature of “structural functionalism,” the anthropological approach Dunham used in her study of diasporic African dance: “By turning to dance, Dunham had arguably chosen the most difficult path for reframing primitivism. From another vantage point, she can be said to have audaciously struck at the heart of primitivist discourse, challenging its most fundamental precepts about black women’s bodies in motion” (32). In other words, Dunham problematically sought to “elevate” African rhythms and movements through Western concert dance structures while holding the belief that those rhythms and movements were the truest forms of expression.

Das takes us through Dunham’s process of transforming the dances she learned in the Caribbean into choreographic works for the concert dance stage. Prior to Dunham’s 10-month research trip to the Caribbean in 1935-1936, Dunham, not unlike Ruth St. Denis, “adopt[ed] exotic foreign identities” (16)—a form of cultural appropriation—in her early choreography, a practice that she transformed through her training in anthropology and participant-observer work in the Caribbean. Das writes, “For both black and white women of the early twentieth century, exotic performance was a means of liberation from restrictive gender and racial identities” (16). Das places these forays into cultural appropriation in the context of a real tension between racial and gender uplift, a tension we’re still living today.

It’s easy to condemn Dunham for choreographing an “Oriental” dance until Das reframes the move in the context of finding ways out of stereotypes of black women that came out of minstrelsy. Das reminds us that for a black woman to focus on dance in any part of the twentieth century “was an audacious move at a time when the body, especially the black female body, was considered to have little capacity for intellectual expression” (20). Dunham’s work in the Caribbean reveals how choreographers locate content and choreographic approaches among their “subjects.” “Instead of serving as raw material to insert into a ballet or modern dance, Caribbean dance could offer its own aesthetic principles, both in terms of philosophical foundation and formal movement structure” (36).

Dunham’s choreographic practice moved from “pre-Caribbean interpretive dance” to “fairly direct translations of the dances she had seen in the Caribbean,” to anti-fascist agit prop works, to “’fusion’: a blending of her ballet and modern dance training with Afro-Caribbean forms” (56). Das describes this last approach as the moment when “Dunham’s aesthetics became her politics” (56). And she attributes her success to the way Dunham blended narrative structures, program notes, and choreography that displayed “that elusive blend of high art, social value, and popular appeal” (57).

Dunham was a black female intellectual whose life work focused on the dancing body; a dancer and choreographer who understood that dance constitutes knowledge that extends beyond knowing how to move. As a scholar, she was surprisingly transparent about the limits of her objectivity during her research in the Caribbean—as a dancer who took part in the performances and rituals she studied, she recognized the gap between embodied response and intellectual recording of experience. She knew that she was both a foreigner (as an American) and an heir (as a black person) to the cultural forms she witnessed and participated in. “In essence, Dunham proffered contradictory opinions. […] This back-and-forth revealed a central tension of diaspora that Dunham would wrestle with throughout her career—namely, the debate over how best to ensure the continuity of Africanist cultural practices in new settings” (38).

Das offers us a detailed picture of Dunham’s pedagogical philosophy and practice. The Dunham School operated from 1944 to 1954, long enough to sediment Dunham’s influence on everything from the development of jazz dance pedagogy to the integration of dance training spaces. This got me wondering about the particular personal, social, and political forces that shape the development and dissemination of dance techniques in general. For example, according to Das, Dunham’s signature blend of ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance was a function of her personal experience with these forms, of course; but her technique is also an effect of her political drive to dismantle racial stereotypes about black dancers. Taking her diverse dance experiences and codifying them into a technique constitutes a political move, one that “struck a blow to all three stereotypes” (64) of black bodies dancing—that black people were natural dancers, that black people “could not dance genres that required technical training,” and “that perfecting dances derived from black culture required natural abilities, not dedicated practice” (65). I could feel the deeply American nature of Dunham’s training history in my bones—the Laban and Dalcroze, the ballet and musical theater, the black social dances, the random encounters with Eastern European folk forms—a polyvocality of forms colliding. We can see how Dunham’s bodily experience of multiple dance forms are archived as the Dunham technique, a form of “kinesthetic memory” (40).

Both Das and Dunham emerge in this book as women who believe in the social and political power of dance. Das illustrates how Dunham’s experiences in the Caribbean helped her “articulate[] a thesis about embodied knowledge and its relationship to politics” (52), which in turns helps Das articulate her own thesis about how a politics of diaspora is embodied through dance. Das explains that “Dunham repeated a consistent message: training in the performing arts and humanities prepared students to face life’s problems” (108). This line alone convinced me to put Das’ book on my syllabus—that and the fact that if a student searches for “Beyoncé” in Google Scholar, Das’ book will come up. Das closes Katherine Dunham with an epilogue that clearly articulates Dunham’s relevance today and the challenge she continues to pose for us—how to “embrac[e] interculturalism without reproducing cultural hierarchies” (201). Whether we identify as activists, artists, educators, administrators, scholars, or all of the above, we can meet that challenge if we’re willing to learn, act, and, above all, change. Dunham, the great strategist, not only “choreographed the change she wished to see in the world” (201); she also appears to have let the world choreograph change in herself, demonstrating that dance, as a dialectic of stillness and movement, of listening and responding, is the perfect medium for political movement.

Das is not the first white dance scholar to write about a black dancer, and she is aware that this can prove an awkward position. In the preface, she writes, “And while Dunham always proclaimed that her technique was for everyone, I see myself as a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice” (x). This line is quintessential Das. Throughout the book, Das holds every tension and contradiction, whether in Dunham’s rhetoric or her own, with honesty and care. And this is what makes her book not just smart but brilliant. Das reminds us that it’s always a risk to dance—and to write. And Dunham teaches us that these are risks worth taking.

This article appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of In Dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to