MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at

Katherine Dunham in New York City

Eighty years ago this month, an anthropologist named Katherine Dunham made her New York City dance debut at the 92nd Street Y. The 28 year old Chicago native choreographed and performed with her own company of dancers as part of “A Negro Dance Evening” organized by fellow dancers Edna Guy and Allison Burroughs.  Born in 1909, Dunham initially trained in ballet and danced with the Chicago Opera. By 1933, she opened her own dance school with her students evolving into her company of dancers. Dunham’s choreography was influenced both by her classical training and through the field research she conducted in pursuit of her Bachelor’s in social anthropology. Studying dance forms in Jamaica, Martinique, and Haiti, Dunham was one of the first African Americans to graduate with an anthropology degree from the University of Chicago. All of this before she even stepped a toe onto a New York stage.  In the last week of women’s history month, we’ll take a brief look at Dunham’s career once she got to the Big Apple.

Marcus Blechman. [Katherine Dunham.] ca. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. 76.20.245.

Three years after her uptown performance, Katherine Dunham made her Broadway debut with the 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky. Though she choreographed a piece for the musical revue Pins and Needles earlier that year, Cabin in the Sky marked Dunham’s first time as a performer on Broadway. The show was directed and choreographed by the ballet master George Balanchine, and featured an all African American cast starring Ethel Waters along with Dunham and her company.  Though the flier below insists the “entire production” was staged by Balanchine, Dunham has since been given co-authorship of the show’s choreography.

Flier for Cabin in the Sky, 1940-1941. Museum of the City of New York. Theatrical production files.

Dunham wowed New Yorkers as the temptress Georgia Brown. Her company stayed with the show when it began a national tour, but when the production stopped in Los Angeles, so did Dunham and her dancers.

Bob Golby. [Cabin in the Sky theater still.] 1940. Museum of the City of New York. 68.80.13249.

Another three years passed before before Dunham returned to Broadway. This time she took full creative control working as director, choreographer, and dancer in her 1943 Tropical Revue. Between 1943 and 1946, Dunham created over six productions for Broadway including Blue Holiday, Concert Varieties, Carib Song, and Bal Negre.

Program for Tropical Revue, 1945. Museum of City of New York. 45.348.78.


This program from the opening night of Bal Negre in 1946 lists the nineteen year-old Eartha Kitt as one of the dancers. Kitt began studying with Dunham in 1943 and became a member of her company.

Program for Bal Negre, 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 47.175.4.


The late 1940s saw Dunham and her company touring around the world with stops in New York becoming fewer and farther between. Her last Broadway revue was 1962’s Bambouche!, and her final performance on stage was in 1967 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Souvenir program for Katherine Dunham and her company. 1955-1956. Museum of the City of New York. 68.119.400.


William Auerbach-Levy. [Katherine Dunham and her Company.] 1950-1955. Museum of the City of New York. 64.100.1528.

Advertisement on page 10 from Bal Negre theater program, 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 47.175.4.

As a retired performer, Dunham turned her energy to teaching. It was, in fact, a vocation she never abandoned. For a decade beginning in 1945, she directed the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre just off of Times Square. Students that passed through the school included the great American actors Gregory Peck, Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine, James Dean, and Sidney Poitier; but Dunham’s lasting legacy belongs to modern dance. In addition to influencing and inspiring countless dancers around the world including a young Alvin Ailey, Dunham also developed a dance pedagogy which is still taught in major dance schools as the Dunham Technique.

Throughout her career as an artist and educator, Dunham cultivated a connection to Haiti, a country that hosted her as a young undergraduate. She visited the country often over the years establishing a clinic there in 1961 and becoming a priestess in the country’s Vodou religion. In 1992 at the age of 83, she went on a 47 day hunger strike to protest the United States’ discriminatory policies against Haitian refugees. There is just not enough space in a blog post to dig into all she got done.

The dancer, teacher, artist, and activist Katherine Dunham passed away in 2006 in her Manhattan home. She was 96 years old.


Marcus Blechman. [Katherine Dunham.] ca. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. 76.20.243.

Marcus Blechman. [Katherine Dunham.] ca. 1950. Museum of the City of New York. 76.20.244.

About Morgen Stevens-Garmon

Associate Curator, Theater Collection Museum of the City of New York

2 comments on “Katherine Dunham in New York City

  1. Pingback: I love archives: The amazing Katherine Dunham – CAMARA DIA HOLLOWAY

  2. lincolnlifesite
    May 7, 2017

    Reblogged this on Lincoln Life Blog.

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