This is a first-year dance history essay on Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey. One obvious weakness of this essay is that Dunham is covered more extensively than Ailey, but I think she is less known. The bibliography clearly shows how much of the research was done on the net ;-).


Katherine Dunham

Alvin Ailey

The contribution of Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey to modern dance1


Katherine Dunham's background and work

Katherine Dunham created one of the most popular American dance companies ever, and she was a pioneer in exploring the African American cultural heritage. Why is it then such an amazing lack of information about her? Is this another example of how history tend to forget the contributions of women and blacks2?

Katherine Dunham was born in Illinois in 19093. She was one of the first coloured women who studied at the University of Chicago, where she started in 1928. In Chicago, she also had dance classes, and in 1931 she opened a dance studio with two friends, calling the students the "Ballet Negre". The studio lacked funding, and was soon closed, but Dunham continued dancing, and started her career as a dancer in Ruth Page's "La Guiablesse" in 19334.

At the University, she attended a course of cultural anthropology, and became interested in the dance traditions of the African American culture. In 1935, she went to the Caribbean and studied the dance forms of the descendants of the slaves. Dance was a nuclear part of their religious traditions, and the preserved African techniques required highly skilled dancers.

This combination of academically and practically developed knowledge of dance and traditions, was very important for her contributions5 to the dance, even though her anthropological studies possibly was the reason why she so often used themes from "primitive cultures" instead of contemporary American culture.

When she returned to the US in 1936, what she had learnt in the Caribbean was a lasting source of inspiration for new choreography. This was a year of experimenting, Balanchine was staging Broadway shows which combined ballet and jazz movements. Dunham was at that time, however,

"...considered a modern dancer and her style would appear to be too ethnic to appeal to the emerging Broadway theatrical jazz". (Boross:Pioneers..)

But already in 1940, this view must have changed, because her group of dancers was cast in the Broadway musical "Cabin in the sky", where Dunham and George Balanchine co-operated about the choreography.

Katherine Dunham established a dance school, and a company. She choreographed more than a hundred dances for "The Dunham Dancers", and they toured both the US and Europe, with huge success. Bob Boross describes these concerts as follows:

"She is noted for using elaborate costuming, lighting, and choreographic structures to make primitive dances palatable to theatrical audiences." (Boross: George Balanchine...)

The main goal of Katherine Dunham, was to raise an awareness and understanding of black traditions (Aschenbrenner 1980: 23). Boross' comment seems to reflect an attitude of disrespect for the ways Dunham/Pratt6 staged their shows. In some ways both she and Ailey have inherited some of the Denishawn appeal of exoticism and theatricality, mainly because Dunham and Ailey are conscious of having a message, and want to be popular in order to reach a large audience. Also, with constant lack of funds, they had to be popular simply in order to survive.

Dunham must have known the oppression based on "cultural borrowing while maintaining social distance" (Aschenbrenner 1980: 21). Through the "cultural borrowing", her Haitian movements had a huge impact on the styles of modern and jazz, although the black choreographers rarely were credited of being the innovators behind the influence. This exploitation was the cost of bringing these movements to the American stage, and Dunham must have accepted it and hoped that the wider understanding of the style in time would bring an understanding of the culture that had created the style. To make the movements acceptable for a white and sometimes rather moralistic, conservative public, she even used the arguments of the "primitive, naive negro" stereotype, that the hip movements were not consciously sexual, but rather unselfconsciously innocent.

Her school had to close in 1954, again because of lack of funding, but the company continued touring successfully till the mid-60's.

Dunham also was an aftersought choreographer, for stage, television and cinema. When she staged "Aida" in 1962, she was the first black choreographer at the Metropolitan Opera.

Her impact on dance, has been both through her technique, her choreography, the way she "educated" audiences and critics to appreciate and understand her movements (see Aschenbrenner 1980: 46f), and not least her skilled dancers. Her schools have educated more than 300 dancers, and Dunham technique is still taught. The inspiration from her dancers has been a groundbreaking experience for many choreographers-to-be:

"In my research, I saw Charles Moore, who worked with Katherine Dunham in her first company. He had solo dance that impressed me so much because it looked like what I was trying to do. It was very incredible and touched me a lot, because he was a black American who used Nigerian influences in contemporary dance." (Kofi Koko, interviewed by Marlowe More.)

Her technique, extracted from the dances of the Caribbean and Haiti, uses isolations and hip movements, which became a part of jazz dance.

The themes of Dunham's dances were a contribution nobody has taken up. Later artists, like Alvin Ailey, preferred to show an American context and their own experiences in their choreography. A consequence of this, is that few of Dunham's works have been restaged, so her actual choreographic works has not become a lasting contribution to the dance.

But one of the most important results of Dunham's work, was that she opened the stages for serious, black artists, where African Americans before had been regarded as entertainers only. Where the Afro-American traditions and creativity earlier had been exploited by white choreographers and used to earn money for their Broadway shows, she started the process of change which opened the way for people like Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, and, more recently, Bill T. Jones to be recognised as creative artists of dance.


Alvin Ailey's background and work

Alvin Ailey was born in 1931. He studied modern dance with Lester Horton, and ran his company after his death, before he started the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

His goal as a choreographer has been to "erase the idea of color" (Philp 1978), unlike Katherine Dunham, whose goal primarily was showing the richness of black cultural heritage.

Ailey is widely regarded as a skilled modern, but not avant-garde, choreographer. Mazo states in "Prime movers" that Ailey "is not to be reckoned a great choreographer in the company of Graham, Humphrey and Cunningham", and calls him a "salesman of dance". (Mazo 1980:243) This view is due to Ailey's conscious theatricality and audience appeal.

Due to these qualities, one of Ailey's contributions to modern dance is a huge and dance-loving audience.

Ailey has never created his own technique, but he has been teaching Dunham and Horton, and thus contributed to their preservation and continued use. He has also recognised the task of preserving the works of other choreographers, like Dunham and McKayle, and invited several choreographers to create dances for the Alvin Ailey company. In addition to his own works, of which many are being preserved for use by AAADT, this is a lasting source of inspiration and choreographic possibilities.

His company is also a main contribution to the dance world, while no other company or choreographer seems to copy his style.



The works of both Alvin Ailey and Katharine Dunham have contributed to the modern dance. Dunham's greatest contribution was opening new sources of movements, and make the audiences recognise those as traces of an advanced culture. This seems to have led to an understanding of the creative work behind the "primitive" movements, and, even though her main appeal was based on exoticism, this actually led to an acceptance of Afro-Americans as creative artists.

Alvin Ailey's biggest contributions were the way he merged popular dance styles and the experiences and beliefs of black people with great theatrical skill, his inspiration and encouragement of other choreographers, and his company and audience. Some of his best choreographies, like "Revelation", is a contribution that seems to last and be kept alive.



1  Since the length of this essay is limited, there is no space for discussing the problems of the phrases used in the question, especially what "modern dance" is. To avoid ideas of cultural Darwinism, which considers the "primitive" cultures as less advanced and valuable than the "white-western", I will in this essay consider all dance practised today as "modern" dance styles, but for practical reasons consider Dunham's and Ailey's impact on "jazz" and "contemporary" dance.
2  In this essay, I will use both the words "black", "coloured", and the phrase "Afro-American". The last phrase, I will use to clarify the diversity of the cultural roots and experiences of people with both African and American background.
3  The sources give either 1909, 1910 or 1911 as Dunham's year of birth.
4  This show was based on Martinique folklore, which shows that Dunham must have known some ethnic technique even before she went to the Caribbean.
5  The word "contribution" in the question could certainly be clarified through a little definition and discussion of what counts as such. Since there is no space for such a discussion, I use the phrase in the widest sense, and would argue that even the images left in the viewers' heads are contributions to the next generation of dancers. Also, since what was "contributed" has had smaller or greater impact - is it possible to call it a "contribution" if it seems to have had no impact at all, but later choreographers may develop the tradition?
6  The stage design for the Dunham Dancers was done by the costume- and set designer John Pratt, her husband.




Aschenbrenner, Joyce: "Katherine Dunham. Reflections on the social and political contexts of Afro-American dance"
CORD, NY 1980.

Boross, Bob: "George Balanchine and Theatrical Jazz Dance",

Boross, Bob: "Pioneers of Jazz Dance Technique",

Johnson, Robin: "Spotlight on Katherine Dunham",

Mazo, J.M.: "Prime movers"
A&C Black 1980

Moore, Marlowe: "Interview with Koffi Koko",

Patricia Nolan: "Biography of Miss Dunham",

Philp, Richard: The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,
Dancemagazine October 1978


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