Katherine Dunham’s year in the Caribbean, during the 1930s was both an anthropological field trip and a journey in search of her own roots. She experienced dance that was a powerful echo of African culture and an integral part of spiritual and secular life. After completing her master’s thesis, “The Dances of Haiti,” Dunham turned to the concert stage — a bold move at a time when black dancers were confined to roles as sensual exotica in cabaret chorus lines or comic relief in minstrel shows and vaudeville.
To accomplish her mission, Dunham had to mold dancers who could perform what she called “the steps of the Gods.” She crafted a movement system that fused the isolations and polyrhythmic syncopations of African-derived dance from the Caribbean with European ballet. The Dunham Technique, along with those created by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Jose Limon, was one of modern dance’s seminal movement systems. Showcased in “L’Ag’Ya,” a piece based on dances she studied in Martinique, and in a class taught by former Dunham dancer Walter Nicks, it is also visible in Dunham’s performance in the motion picture version of the Broadway musical on which she collaborated with New York City Ballet’s George Balanchine, “Cabin in the Sky.”