Thesis Turned Broadway

by Katherine Dunham

Featured in Mountain Record 25.2, Winter 2006

Thesis Turned Broadway

In the great raft of publicity which, in the past few months, has appeared in connection with my role in the Broadway show Cabin in the Sky, I find myself referred to, and on the very same day, both as “the hottest thing on Broadway” and “an intelligent, sensitive young woman... an anthropologist of note.” Personally, I do not think of myself as either one of these extreme phenomena. But eager reporters, confronted by the simultaneous presence of two such diverse elements, have often failed to grasp the synthesis between them; they have chosen, instead, to account for effectiveness by an exaggerated emphasis upon either one or the other. Then there is always the fact that the attempt to relate the dignified and somewhat awesome science of anthropology with the popular art of Broadway dancing and theater works the interviewer back to the question of which came first. Actually, that consideration is as unimportant as the chicken-egg controversy. Now that I look back over the long period of sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous interest in both subjects, it seems inevitable that they should have eventually fused completely.


Photo by Katherine Dunham


Every person who has a germ of artistry seeks to recreate and present an impression of universal human experience—to fulfill either human needs or wants. The instrument is the specific art form which may have been chosen; the effectiveness depends upon skill in handling the form and upon the originality of the individual imagination. But the experience which is given expression cannot be either too individual or too specific; it must be universal. In the Greek theater, for example, the importance of the universals was so great that an entire system of formal absolutes was worked out of their expression. Consequently, any effective artistic communication is impossible if the artist’s understanding of human experience is limited by inadequate knowledge. Anthropology is the study of humanity. It is a study not of a prescribed portion of people’s activity or history, but a study (through some one of the five fields of anthropological specialization—ethnology, archaeology, social anthropology, linguistics, physical anthropology) of their entire state of being throughout their entire history. In such a survey, the students of anthropology gradually come to recognize universal emotional experiences, common alike to both the primitive Bushman and the sophisticated cosmopolitan; they note patterns of expression which have been repeatedly effective throughout the ages and which, though modified by many material circumstances, persist in their essential form; and finally, they acquire an historical perspective which enable them, in the confusion of changing maps and two world wars within a single generation, to discern the developing motifs and consistent trends.

As nearly as I can remember, I have been dancing since I was eight years old and it has been my growing interest to know not only how people dance but, even more importantly, why they dance as they do. By the time I was studying at the University of Chicago, I had come to feel that if I could discover this, not only as it applied to one group of people but to diverse groups, with their diverse cultural, psychological, and racial background, I would have arrived at some of the fundamentals, not only of choreographic technique, but of theater artistry and function. I applied myself to acquiring this knowledge and eventually, as a “Julius Rosenwald fellow, student of anthropology and the dance,” spent a year and a half traveling throughout the West Indies in pursuit of this understanding.