The Katherine Dunham Technique


A few weeks ago, I performed a fusion of sorts for a belly dance show, incorporating “elements” of belly dance with the Haitian dance, Yanvalou. I came across Yanvalou about two years ago and really loved it because it’s that lovely midway point (at least in my mind) between some of the West African dances I’ve learned with Deja and the smooth flow of belly dance. It’s powerful like West African and yet sensual like belly dance. I love the movement of the spine, which is meant to  exemplify the undulations of the Great Serpent diety, Damballah. In Haitian culture, the Great Serpent is your breath. Translated over to Yoga, it would be Prana Shakti.

I have since performed a more traditional version of this at Deja’s invitation (heart!!!) and I loved doing it. Oddly enough, the more I do it, the more I want to do it, which tends to be the exact opposite of all my other performance pieces. With a lot of the things I’ve done with belly dance, it feels like a one-time event, mostly because I get bored with it and rarely want to perform it a second time, but the Haitian stuff is just infectious to me. It feels so…”natural” to my body, like the minute I start doing it, I’m not really conscious of anything else, which is really weird, because the last time I did it, I was in front of a lot of people (well, a lot for me anyway) and I was nervous as Hell before I started but once I started moving, I completely zoned them all out. It was just me and the drums and the spirit. Pretty dang cool if you ask me. My husband really likes this dance too, which is another bonus, because quite frankly, he’s become really bored with belly dance. I’m partially to blame for that though, after subjecting him to BD show after BD show.

I still love belly dance and will always love and practice belly dance, but African kind of opened my eyes to a new source of power. Belly Dance is powerful too, just in a different way. If dance was to be compared to cats, African would be a tiger, while belly dance would be more like a lynx. You wouldn’t want to find yourself cornered by either, but one packs a bit more muscle than the other ;0)

So, I’ve been thinking lately that I’d love to find a way to incorporate what I like about belly dance and what I like about African and African Diaspora dances together, without being disrespectful. In my research meanderings, I came across Katherine Dunham.

There’s a great documentary about her on PBS I really would like to see: Free to Dance

During her heyday in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America. The Washington Post called her “Dance’s Katherine the Great”. For more than 30 years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only permanent, self-financing American black dance troupe at that time. Before she decided on dance, she was an Anthropology major and became one of the first major scholars in Ethnochoreology. While doing graduate work in the 30s, she conducted ethnographic study of the dance forms of the Caribbean, especially as manifested in Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Martinique. Dunham was invited to perform “Yanvalou,”at an historic event in New York called the “Negro Dance Evening,” in the 1940s. Over time, Dunham was excepted into the echelons of the early Modern Dance pioneers and her style of dance was coined the Katherine Dunham technique: a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement — a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving — which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance.

While watching some of the videos of this technique, I was like, “Oh! That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!” It’s powerful, yet fluid and flowing…it has a lot of the moves I love from African, but it’s so smooth. If my teacher Deja, who has a background in both Modern and African, hasn’t already had some sort of training in this style, I’m pretty sure she’s already doing it anyway, because she’s the only person I’ve ever seen who moves through African so gracefully.

So..yeah, I really want to learn more about the Katherine Dunham technique. Not sure if anyone around here teaches it, but I will find a way…someday. I’d also really like to study more of these Caribbean and South American dances. They are very powerful to me, yet flowy and snake-like…what I like. I think it would be really cool to go to Haiti or Jamaica or Martinique to study. Hmmmm, maybe New Orleans? In any event, I was happy to find a definition for what I’ve been sort of trying to do on my own. I’m a Capricorn and we like labels…one of the major things I struggle with.
Oooo! AND I’ve recently discovered a Yoga Dance form that I’m really interested in which, ironically enough, utilizes many of these same upward undulation spinal movements that are found in Yanvalou. But that will have to be discussed in another post…to be continued.


The Detroit Legacy Project present the Katherine Dunham Tribute
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One thought on “The Katherine Dunham Technique

  1. Dear Britta, I loved learning about Katherine Dunham, and loved even more learning the dances. I have been trying to find some instructional video’s of her begining classes, but am not having any luck. If you happen to come across some, or even make one of your own, please contact me. Maybe you should make your own video,combining all the dance that you do. Maybe it would make you enough money to go on the travels that you dream of. Some people are just meant to go out in the world and learn dances that we never even know of here. You seem like you could be a person that would be accepted and taught, someone that has a speacial something that you would learn and be taught many things. I will keep you in my prayers,but I know your dreams will come true.Just don’t hold yourself back. Bless you, and thank-you for bringing,and even more making others aware of how much Katherine Dunham did for island dance. Bless you, and may you keep dancing till you are old and even wiser. Lori

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