Black History Month Video Vault: Katherine Dunham and Stormy Weather

In 1943, the all Black musical film, Stormy Weather, took audiences by storm as it showcased some of the finest African American performers of all time. Among them were such stars as the singer, Lena Horne, famous not only for her beautiful voice but also for her political activism, and Bill Robinson, also known as Bojangles, who was an incredibly talented tap dancer and even danced alongside Shirley Temple.

Lena Horne and Bill Robinson from Stormy Weather, 1943
Lena Horne and Bill Robinson from Stormy Weather, 1943

 

In addition to these artists, Stormy Weather also featured one of the most influential women in dance and a Chicago native: Katherine Dunham. Dunham helped shape the dance world by infusing her African and Caribbean studies into modern dance.

Katherine Dunham was born in 1909 in Chicago to a Black father and French-Canadian and American Indian mother. She began dancing in high school, and at the age of 19 she began studying under Ludmilla Speranzeva, a famous Russian ballerina who was one of the first at the time to accept black students. In addition to ballet, Dunham was also exposed to Spanish, East Indian, and Balinese styles of dance from other teachers.

After high school, Katherine went on to attend the University of Chicago, where she received a degree in Anthropology. Throughout her time in college, she immersed herself in African dance studies. Eventually, Dunham established one of the first all Black dance companies, Ballet Nègre, in Chicago. While the company didn't have a long life, it sparked an interest within her for teaching and motivated her to continue her dance journey. Soon after, she went on to open a dance school, Negro Dance Group, in Chicago.

Katherine Dunham in a photograph from around 1945.
Katherine Dunham around 1945.  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During her time in Chicago, Katherine Dunham also starred in Ruth Page's ballet, La Guiablesse, and acted as Page's assistant at the Chicago Opera.

In line with her anthropological passions, in 1935 Dunham traveled to the Caribbean to continue her studies of the societies and cultures in that region for two years. While there, she visited Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and maybe most importantly: Haiti.

Haiti would become one of Katherine Dunham's main sources of inspiration for her dancing because of her strong sense of connection to the country and its people. She would use what she learned in the Caribbean to revolutionize the mostly white, European dance sphere that existed in the United States at the time. She incorporated elements of traditional folk and ethnic dances, as well as rituals, into modern dance and beyond.

Katherine Dunham Dance Company
Katherine Dunham and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company on the set of Stormy Weather.

Dunham formed the The Katherine Dunham Dance Company in 1940, which was one of the most successful, completely self sufficient Black dance companies. She choreographed  Aida in 1963, making her the first Black Choreographer for the Metropolitan Opera. She even created the Dunham Technique, which is still taught to this day.

In Lena Horne's iconic rendition of the title song, Stormy Weather, Katherine Dunham and her dance company perform a beautiful dance during a musical interlude near the end of the song. The scene begins with the company dancing in the rainy street, and flows into Dunham on a beautiful, tropically designed stage. Her dancers soon follow, displaying a wide range of dance styles, as is the staple of Dunham's technique. Notice the traditional balletic partnering like shoulder sits and whip turns, the modern elements like floor spins and angular arm positions, and the African and Caribbean influences of certain shoulder and hip movements.

 

Sources:

The Library of Congress: Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection.

Katherine Dunham Center for Arts and Humanities.

The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women
www.barnard.edu/sfonline

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