Her Body on the Line

Sasha Anawalt is the author of "The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company," and a performing arts critic for KCRW-FM

"It does no good to sit down and say that racism is wrong. You do something about it," says Katherine Dunham, who at 91 is still finding ways to do something about it.

She is the centerpiece of a three-hour Dance in America and American Dance Festival-funded documentary, "Free to Dance," which airs today on PBS.

"Free to Dance" is spearheaded by veteran filmmaker Madison Davis Lacy, who was a consulting producer for Ken Burns' "Jazz" and who created the Emmy award-winning 1995 documentary biography of Richard Wright, "Black Boy."

When Lacy embarked on the "Free to Dance" project six years ago, he started with the premise that "the dancing done by ordinary people is the true American dance." He wanted to look at vernacular dance and specifically to trace the roots of black dance from Africa to America and show how the black vernacular tradition found its place on the concert stage.

But how could this be done for television? Who had seen early black dance? Was there film? Who could tell the story?

Lacy isn't a dance historian, but he knew a few big names: There was Pearl Primus, who died in 1994 and who had pioneered black protest dance. She had also traveled to Africa and the Southern United States filming traditional dances. And there was Katherine Dunham, still alive and very much kicking.

As an anthropologist in the 1930s, Dunham had filmed secular and religious dances of the West Indies. Universally respected as a scholar, Dunham was above all famous as a dancer and choreographer and the developer of Dunham technique, which is still taught in dance schools today. Ballet Negre, the first company she directed, in 1930, lasted only a year but marked the beginning of mainstream black dance troupes in America. From Broadway ("Cabin in the Sky") to Hollywood ("Stormy Weather") to concert stages on every continent, she had captivated audiences with her magnetic performances.

"I knew I wanted Katherine Dunham to lead this film, that she was the driving force," Lacy said.

Lacy also knew that Dunham was only a beginning. He compares this film's evolution to that of "Jazz." For that, he had gathered a library from which he and others working on the production could do all their research. In two to three weeks, Lacy remembers, he and several colleagues had come up with a huge amount of material on jazz.

But when it came to black dance history, that process couldn't be duplicated.

"There were very few books on black dance history," he recalled. "Modern dance and Negro dance were dealt with separately, and there was hardly anything on Negro dance." Even Dunham got only grudging coverage in many histories of modern concert dance.

In despair, he called choreographer and legend-in-his-own-right Donald McKayle, who is also a professor in UC Irvine's dance department. McKayle surprised Lacy by saying, "Look to the universities. There's a whole new generation of scholars."

As Lacy tells it, the next day a dissertation by John Perpener "flopped" on his desk. In its pages was basically everything that "Free to Dance" became. Packed with the latest in dance scholarship, it told the stories of eight black concert dancers who from the mid-1920s to the 1940s struggled for acceptance from the American public and critical establishment. Dunham, of course, was one.

"We have a film!" Lacy recalled exclaiming at the time.

And one that would honor the spirit of the pioneers: "We now have a critical mass of dance historians who are asking the right questions," Lacy says, "And it is really thanks to Katherine Dunham."

Among the "right" questions that Dunham herself had asked as a student of social anthropology at the University of Chicago--not by asking it academically, but by living it, experiencing it, testing it--was, "How does racial discrimination affect the development of an art form and a culture?"

On the phone from her home in New York City recently, Dunham said that the question is still one of the "unanswerables." But "Free to Dance" reveals there are stories to tell that for her illustrate why the problem of prejudice and injustice was and always will be central to her "goal in living."

"My life has been angled toward trying to show that people who are the put-down minority are the same as other people," she said. "I happen to be African American and I happen to have spent a good deal of my life examining and presenting to the general public the African American, but that is not my goal. It is to help people know each other, because a lot of the injustices that I have seen is the result of simple, plain ignorance."

Dunham discovered dance seriously as a teenager in the 1920s in her hometown of Joliet, Ill., 40 miles outside of Chicago. At first, she was largely self-taught. She imitated the Russian folk dances she had seen and produced cabarets to raise money for her church, among other causes. She eventually took ballet and studied Jaques-Dalcroze eurhythmics and modern dance.

Negro dance in the 1920s was defined almost entirely by "chitlin' circuit" stereotypes. There was an all-black college modern dance troupe that toured by yacht up and down the Eastern Seaboard as early as 1914, but it was not generally well-known or influential. Dunham's Ballet Negre, which evolved into two other short-lived troupes, performed mostly in private or studio settings. Using student dancers, it was the first to develop black choreography and explore the possibility of a teachable black technique for the concert stage.

But, plagued by chronic arthritis in both knees, Dunham wanted to keep her career options open. She enrolled in the University of Chicago, where she heard an anthropologist lecture about the acculturation of African dance in America. It fired her up and she decided to major in anthropology. In 1935, she earned a prestigious fellowship to study ritual and dance in Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique and Haiti.

Dr. Melville Herskovits, at Northwestern University outside Chicago, who trained her for her expedition, handed her two calling cards before she left. One read "Katherine Dunham, dancer" and the other "anthropologist."

She stayed in the West Indies for 18 months. During that time, the Haitians allowed her not only to learn their dances and film them, but also to be initiated into the voudon, or voodoo, religion, which originated in West Africa.

By breaking the anthropologist's so-called code of objectivity to the extent of practicing her subjects' religion and arts, Dunham furthered a trend in anthropology that exists today. More important, she showed conclusively that the study of nonverbal communication is as valuable as studying tools in understanding the living habits of a people.

"It became very clear to me that I could not study what people were doing unless I did it within the framework of why," she said. "It got to be my real calling card in so many instances in the islands that I would know why a person would select a certain form to accomplish rituals for marriage, for courting, for death. And I could show them that I also could use the forms. The forms were recognizable. All life has to do with the relationship between form and function. Forms are passed down and they can be traced."

Armed with this knowledge of how to break down barriers and connect with people by reproducing forms, Dunham returned to Chicago and reinvented her dance company yet again.

She took the dances she had learned and transformed them, choreographed them, for presentation. Her works for Dunham Dance Company--which was made up of Latin Americans and West Indians as well as African Americans--reflected a mixture of Caribbean dancing, drumming, costuming and song enhanced by modern dance movement.

Dunham's "L'Ag'Ya" (1938), is a classic example of her style. She concocted the story about a tempestuous love triangle in a fishing village, but her movement vocabulary came straight from an authentic Martinique fighting dance. The film clips of her dancing "L'Ag'Ya" and her actual footage from Martinique are juxtaposed in "Free To Dance," allowing a glimpse into Dunham's choreographic method.

The documentary points out that the critical establishment separated Dunham's work from other dance being created at the time, the separation Lacy calls "Negro dance." In 1940, John Martin, dance critic for the New York Times, wrote: "[Dunham's choreography] is not designed to delve into philosophy or psychology, but to externalize the impulses of a high spirited, rhythmic and gracious race."

Whenever there was a chilly reception to the troupe's racial composition or to the dances' content, Dunham fought back. One time, during World War II, she performed in Louisville, Ky., in a theater where, despite her protests, blacks were only allowed to buy tickets in the uppermost balcony. After she danced and had quieted the enthusiastic crowd, she stepped forward and asked if it seemed fair that blacks were fighting in the war and yet not allowed to sit in the orchestra. The next week, she said, Marian Anderson performed to a fully mixed house at the same theater.

"There was no more segregated seating in the city of Louisville after me," said Dunham. "And believe me, I felt good about it. The audience was as much opposed to the injustice of racism as I was. It's about changing people's thinking."

Dunham also made more edgy dances that dramatized the contemporary black urban experience. "Barrelhouse Blues" (1938) is one such piece. When Martin saw it on Broadway in 1940 as part of Dunham's "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot," he dismissed her sensual duet with her partner at the time as "an incredible vulgarity." Although a staunch supporter of modern dance, Martin was never able to accept Dunham fully into the cannon of American modern dance pioneers.

"It doesn't bother me now that he or other writers misunderstood me, because I think my experience has let me know pretty much what to expect from people, particularly people who are in a controlling position," Dunham said.

"The question to ask is how much of [prejudice] is deliberate--a directed and deliberate ignorance. I suspect a certain amount was deliberate. But you do something about it. Even if it's only in your own mind, or your own community, you do something to show that the root experiences of all people are the same."

Dunham's personal story forms the spine of the second of the three parts of Lacy's documentary, but she also appears as a scholar and observer in the other two parts, which together broadly lays out a chronology of black dance.

Part One explores current scholarship on early black dance in the United States, featuring rare footage of African and slave dances (especially a form called the ring shout). The second part follows Dunham's history and the story of the formation of companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The third leaps ahead to the present generation of choreographers and the idea that "African American dance can be absolutely anything," in the words of one of those choreographers.

Throughout "Free to Dance," Lacy wants to make clear the profound impact of African dance on American dance.

"If black folks have been here since the 1600s, and white folks and black folks have been watching each other dance," he argues, "then all of American dance has been influenced by the African American presence."

Lacy's documentary also argues that for African Americans, dancing has always been a matter of putting your body on the line for equality. For example, it tells the little-known story of dance-obsessed Edna Guy, who was admitted to the seminal modernist company Denishawn but never allowed to dance on stage. Guy struck out on her own, presenting a black dance festival in 1937 in New York, where her own performance was hailed as the highlight.

Dunham's story and the current crop of dancers and choreographers, from McKayle to Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (of the Urban Bush Women), Garth Fagan and Ronald K. Brown, echoes the theme. Bill T. Jones, whose Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is among the most influential at work in the U.S. today, puts it this way at one point in the film: "I have always believed that my body would become a conduit for experiences that are greater than I."

From Lacy's standpoint, however, no one communicated the principle of the body as "conduit" and instrument for struggle more consciously than Dunham, whose history is, as he puts it, "the seminal African American experience."

Dunham simply says that activism has "governed" her life, not only when she danced or choreographed, but, for instance, in 1992, when she fasted for 47 days to protest the U.S. government's decision to turn away Haitian refugees.

"I have never been afraid to show or do something that I felt was easing the pain or suffering of a people," Dunham says, in what could be the coda for "Free to Dance." "It's been this thing of, I guess, courage."

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"Free to Dance" airs at 8 tonight on KCET.

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