Katherine Dunham: voodoo priestess from Illinois

Legendary dancer Katherine Dunham adopted Caribbean culture, and was adopted in her turn. James Ferguson uncovers her monument in Haiti

  • American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham in an Afro-Caribbean-inspired dance. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It is hard to picture a more desolate urban landscape than the slum quarter of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince known as Martissant. The hillside district is a labyrinth of breeze-block buildings and jerry-built shacks, clustered around muddy, rubbish-filled alleys that flood regularly. Overcrowded, polluted and often patrolled by armed criminal gangs, this is a place that seems without hope.

Yet, quite unexpectedly, on the edge of this oppressively dusty shantytown stands what is literally and figuratively an oasis. It might be garbage-strewn, its perimeter walls crumbling, but the 30-acre expanse of trees and undergrowth known as the Habitation Leclerc is the nearest thing Port-au-Prince has to a green lung. Ancient tropical trees festooned with creepers occupy a site that is said to contain a freshwater spring. Various species of palms, mapous and fruit trees rub shoulders with ferns and bamboo, recalling the days when Haiti was a verdant paradise. And this unlikely beauty spot, defiled though it is by the city’s legions of poor, is the legacy of a remarkable woman who loved Haiti and the Caribbean – Katherine Dunham.

Dunham was born a century ago, on June 22, 1909, in small-town Illinois, and lived to the great age of 96. During her long and distinguished career she was a dancer, a choreographer, a songwriter and an author. She was also a distinguished anthropologist and a committed activist, steadfastly defending the interests of black people in the United States and the Caribbean.

Born to middle-class parents – her father was a black businessman, her mother a mixed-race teacher – Katherine was fascinated by dance from an early age and performed at school and in church. Moving to the city, she was able, despite her colour, to study at the University of Chicago, where she pursued research into dance and anthropology, the exciting new academic discipline of the 1930s. In 1935 – 36 she travelled to the Caribbean to look more closely at the African roots of popular dance forms, starting with the Maroons of Jamaica and then moving through Martinique and Trinidad before spending several months in Haiti. In Trinidad she studied the rituals associated with the African deity Shango, but in Haiti she discovered the belief system known as Vodou (voodoo) that would change the direction of her life.

In the 1930s it was rare enough for a black, female US-educated academic to be roaming around the Caribbean. But Dunham went a step further, immersing herself in Vodou lore to the point of becoming initiated as a mambo (priestess). Beautiful, intelligent and relentlessly curious, she mixed easily with peasants and the political elite in Haiti before returning to Chicago. There her original research earned her the title of the “dancing anthropologist”.

Dunham’s work was, in fact, too original and it did not fit into any recognised discipline. She was told that she would have to choose between university life and her love of dance – and she chose the latter. She had already, at the age of 21, formed the Ballets Nègres, the first US black ballet group, and when she teamed up with designer John Pratt (whom she married in 1939) the successes came thick and fast: award-winning choreography on Broadway, sell-out tours of the US and Europe, appearances in Hollywood musicals.

Dunham exuded an exotic sort of sexuality that was both challenging and irresistible to audiences used to conventional vaudeville. In taking the rhythms and movements she had studied in Haiti and fusing them with the best of American jazz, she created dance spectaculars that were successful across the world. She was director, choreographer and star performer. In 1943 the New York Times reported that “throughout the evening Miss Dunham’s chief business is to sizzle, she is 100 per cent seductress”. Katherine Dunham’s great achievement was not only to entertain but also to open audiences’ eyes to the cultural wealth of Caribbean dance. Drawing on ancient African rhythms that had survived the horrors of the Middle Passage and merging them with the exuberant music of the jazz age, she introduced Americans of all skin colours to a shared experience of the black Atlantic.

The show went on until 1967, when Dunham retired from dancing, but for another 30 years she was active, teaching, writing and encouraging new generations of dancers.

Her love of Haiti never faded. She was a frequent visitor to the country and in 1949 decided to buy the little piece of jungle near Martissant as a place to work in and recuperate. Formerly the property of General Emmanuel Leclerc, Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, when Haiti was still a French colony, the land was considered holy by Vodou worshippers. Dunham used the place to build a small clinic for the local community. She later leased part of it to a French businessman who created the luxury Habitation Leclerc, an incongruous jet-set resort of villas and swimming pools that attracted millionaires and pop stars in the 1970s and 1980s.

The deal allowed Dunham to pursue her philanthropic work and provided her with a much-needed income, but the Habitation Leclerc was doomed to disappear as Haiti sank into violence and deepening poverty from the late 1980s.

As Dunham grew older she visited Haiti less frequently, even if she remained a passionate advocate of the “boat people” and a supporter of human rights. Friendly with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, she was an outspoken critic of American policy towards its impoverished neighbour. But she also despaired about her property in Martissant, which over a decade of instability had become the haunt of drug dealers and gun-toting delinquents.

Her intention had long been to turn the place into a botanical garden, and there were moves in the 1990s to evict the squatters and begin restoring the property. Then in June 2007, just over a year after her death, a presidential decree outlined plans to create the Parc de Martissant, with the state buying the land and handing over its restoration as a public park and research centre to a local NGO called FOKAL.

And, miraculously, the project has since moved ahead. In June 2008, 116 local youths, boys and girls, graduated as park-keepers and security personnel, trained to protect the trees and plants from woodcutters and intruders. At the ceremony, which looked to a bright future as a sustainable urban green space, the name and vision of Katherine Dunham were rightly commemorated. In a land where good news is hard to find, it was a moment she would have relished.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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