I was logging on to my yahoo account and saw a news headline that said that Katherine Dunham had died. She was 96. I spent my college years as a dancer. I remember studying the Dunham technique for the first time under a Black choreographer in Memphis. It was like being hit with a mac truck. This was a movement vocabulary that celebrated me! My body, my internal rhythms, my history. Suddenly it was all right to move your torso and dance from your soul. I loved it, and it was what caused me to turn to African dance when I could no longer pound on my body with "classical" techniques.
Dancers are like storytellers in that we pass along our history face to face. There is a dance notation system, but not many people use it. Instead we teach each other by show and tell. This is a very intimate way of passing along a tradition. We must see and hear and touch each other, and each time a movement goes from one body to another it changes just a little bit. Imperceptible modifications have to be made to accomodate the individual's quirks. The struggle is to make that modification transparent. You leave traces of yourself in another person when you put a piece on them. As part of my college degree I studied choreography. I was never anything great in that department, but I came to understand the frustration and joy of depending on other people to articulate your vision.
Ms. Dunham left a legacy of art, social action and courage. She died in poverty having depended on former students and various celebrities to help her meet day to day expenses. She spent most of her time from the sixties forward in East St. Louis, IL, trying to pull a horribly defeated community up through art and education. I saw her onstage once when she must have been in her mid sixties. Her company was doing a retrospective and she came out at the end and danced down the stage on the arm of a young corps member. She was magnificent.
I don't dance anymore. I gave it up reluctantly when I got too sick to keep up. I've never gone back even to social dancing because I married a man with no rhythm. But sometimes when I'm cleaning the house and a certain type of music comes on, I feel my body move in the way that one of Miss Dunham's students taught me, and I remember who I am.
Goodbye Katherine, we'll miss you.
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