writers on dancing


Beyond Technique

Master Class with Katherine Dunham
Masters of African American Choreography
Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
Thursday, April 21, 20055

by George Jackson
copyright ©2005 by George Jackson

Katherine Dunham had traveled to Washington for Wednesday's grand opening of the African American festival but decided to save herself for the second day's master class. Her entrance was awaited expectantly and a bit reverently by a seated audience and the 30 or so dancers who, a few minutes after 3 PM, stood on stage, feet planted moderately apart in parallel position. The class, accompanied by a couple of drummers, had just started with head rotations under the guidance of Rachel Tavenier, the teaching assistant, when Dunham appeared from the left wings of the stage, imperially seated in her wheelchair. At age 96*, she is a substantial woman with large features, especially the eyes. They are wide, deep and draw you in. A neat halo of white hair surrounds her head. Dressed with a hint of the harem, Dunham had chosen orange as her dominant color, probably not because it is the fashion this year (the Ukraine's liberation politics, New York's conspicuous Gates) but for good contrast with her halo's luminosity. All of Dunham's clothing was of a light fabric whereas her jewelry had weight. Was it possible to recognize in this icon the woman I had first seen in 1947/8?

That was in the student lounge, the Reynolds Club, at the U. of Chicago where I'd dozed off in an easy chair trying to finish assigned reading—Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov". Drumming, out of the ordinary on campus at that time, roused me. The sound was insistent yet soft. In the middle of the large room stood a woman, a beautiful woman. She was dressed simply in a skirt suit, the jacket open on (I'm pretty sure) a flowered blouse. The cut and combination of what she wore seemed chic for an ordinary student, yet she was a student. As she declared for one and all to hear, she— Katherine Dunham—had just come back from thesis work in Africa and wanted her fellow students to see what she'd found there. And so, after removing her shoes, Dunham began to dance. Remarkable was what she could do with rhythm. She took it into her body and no matter how sharp and cutting the drum beat, she made it melt and flow. If the rhythm was complex and prickly, she combed it into sensuous strands. Even then, Dunham was a healer. And, she had unavoidable eyes. Margot Fonteyn was a dancer like that; one ended up being caught by her gaze. Photographs of Nijinsky lead to his eyes. It is a distinct gift.

Wheeled to a table with a microphone at the near right corner of the Eisenhower's stage, Dunham began to address last Thursday's class. She spoke slowly, intermittently. "Breathe" she said, "Don't lift your shoulders" and "Go in and out". Then, before continuing further with movement, she appealed for help. I think it was a god that she asked, and both the class participants and part of the audience repeated after her an African incantation. Dunham raised her arms and allowed them to dance, slowly echoing the drums. The dancers, led by Tavenier, curved their arms, raising and lowering them in frontal extension. "I come to learn from you" Dunham said, and expanded on the idea that there is no teaching without the teacher too being taught. "You need to be open". Her arms moved and her fingers spread.Sometimes her indications would lead and at other times they followed what the class did. Her arms and hands had a velvet weightiness. Sometimes she reached for and drank from a glass of water. The class progressed to isolations for the shoulders and articulations for the elbows and wrists. Exercises of bilateral symmetry were followed by alternations of left side and right. There were torso shakes, interweaving arms and arm stretchings, all with solidly planted feet.

Dunham appeared to become disturbed by something and kept looking into the audience as the class engaged in torso pulsations. However, she continued with her comments. "You are coming home" she told them and the dancers stepped into a circle while still sending waves through their bodies. There was more stepping, then high stepping, the dynamic grew and grew. Pulsing, the dancers knelt. It was time to rest. Dunham seemed to doze for a moment as the class sat in a contemplative pose, cross legged with arms turned out and resting on the knees. Most of the class also held its eyes closed. Then Dunham, roused, turned her attention to the audience again. We seemed too passive and it didn't please her. "Do you hear what I hear, those drums, the beat?" she asked. The class had remained in contemplation, patiently, but at this point Tavenier intervened by initiating diagonal crossings of the stage, first in slow plie and then faster, sharper, straighter. Dunham's hands drummed in the air, "Shoulders down, elbows up" she instructed, and then insisted that the audience participate. Quite a few people did, some in the aisles and others walking or clambering up onto the stage. Mostly, these recruits turned out to be dancers too. The class material now focused on rhythmic walking, treading, skipping and there was something very dynamic—a contraction charge with the upper body, led by an elbow, cutting down over the propelling leg action. Back and forth, crisscrossing the stage, the enlarged class went, clamping down and snapping back up repeatedly.

Dunham did not seem as bodily engaged by these forceful exercises as by the gentler ones that had preceded, but on occasion she nodded her head vigorously. When the theater ushers asked the on-stage audience members to return to their seats, Dunham interrupted. "1 minute," she called out and proceeded to say that so far the class had been "wonderful" but how "sad" that the audience wasn't being allowed to participate further. She wondered if it was the fault** of "the union" and then declared she didn't want to continue if all others could not. A compromise was reached and a few people from the audience went back onto the stage for the final, recapitulating exercises. "Don't neglect those who have had no training or less training than you," Dunham told the dancers. "I've learned today," she concluded.

The gentle Dunham had been foremost. It was that temperament which pervaded "Choros", the Dunham choreography we had seen the night before as danced by members of Cleo Parker Robinson's ensemble. There is also the fiery Dunham, but in her revues—as in the Reynolds Club and on this occasion in the Eisenhower - she showed herself that way only sparingly—unless one looked into her eyes.

The class ended with each participant going up to Dunham, kneeling and touching forehead to the floor—an African form of the reverence. The seated audience stood to applaud and Kennedy Center's Alicia Adams presented the master choreographer medallion that Dunham had missed receiving the night before. It is gold and on a red ribbon. Adams hung it around Dunham's neck. Then the great lady was wheeled off stage into the wings on the right side.


* Born 22 June 1909 in Illinois.
**Accident liability was the main reason Kennedy Center didn't want audience members clambering onto the stage. KC's Marlene Cooper, though, managed the compromise with a gentle touch, a Dunham.

Volume 3, No. 16
April 18, 2005

copyright ©2005 George Jackson



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Reviews
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Christopher Correa
Clare Croft
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Gia Kourlas
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Tehreema Mitha
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Susan Reiter
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Meital Waibsnaider

Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
last updated on April 25, 2005