Theses Doctoral

Choreographing a New World: Katherine Dunham and the Politics of Dance

Das, Joanna

This dissertation analyzes the intellectual and political contributions of choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006). As an African American woman, Dunham broke several barriers of race and gender, first as an anthropologist conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the Caribbean in the 1930s, and second as the artistic director of a major dance company that toured the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Australia from the 1930s through the 1960s. She also wrote several scholarly books and articles, opened multiple schools, and served on the boards of numerous arts organizations. Although Dunham's contributions to anthropology and dance are vitally important, "Choreographing a New World" emphasizes her political engagement. Through actions both onstage and off, she helped strengthen the transnational ties of black social movements from the New Negro Movement to the Black Power Movement. In particular, the dissertation contends that Dunham made dance one of the primary forces in the creation and perpetuation of the African diaspora. She herself attempted to live diaspora by forging personal connections across racial, linguistic, national, class, and cultural borders.
In order to shift the focus to Dunham's intellectual and political engagement, "Choreographing a New World" turns to previously untapped archival sources. This dissertation is the first scholarly work on Dunham to examine archives from the U.S. State Department, Office of Economic Opportunity, Bernard Berenson Papers, Rockefeller Foundation Records, Langston Hughes Papers, and Rosenwald Foundation Papers, among other archives. It combines insights from these archives with choreographic analysis, interviews with Dunham's former dancers and students, and embodied participant-observation research at the annual International Katherine Dunham Technique Seminars from 2010 to 2013. Overall, "Choreographing a New World" not only provides a new perspective on Dunham, but also raises important questions about dance as an intellectual and political activity, especially within an African diasporic context.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Foner, Eric
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014