Black Art Has Always Been a Powerful Tool for Social Change
by Brianna Rae
Referred to as ‘The matriarch and queen mother of Black dance,’ Katherine Mary Dunham was an outstandingly talented dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, educator, and social activist. Born in Chicago on June 22, 1909, she was interested in dance and writing at a young age, and by the time she was in high school, had already started a private dance school for young Black children.
She attended the University of Chicago and majored in anthropology, where she studied primarily dances of the African diaspora. Her research took her throughout much of the Caribbean, but eventually she chose dance performance over dance scholarship. In 1931 at the age of 21, she started one of the first Black ballet companies in the U.S., and would use the schools she founded to teach students about African heritage. Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Dunham starred in Broadway productions and in films alike. She was so popular that she became an international star and toured countries outside of the U.S. for nearly 20 years.
In 1945, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in New York City, where it was later expanded to include the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts. Her students often became future celebrities, such as Eartha Kitt, Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, James Dean, and Toni Cade Bambara. It was here that Dunham developed a dance pedagogy called the Dunham Technique, which rose to international acclaim and which is now still taught as a staple of modern dance technique.
She was an outspoken crusader for racial justice, as well as an educator. In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis. She encouraged the residents, racially oppressed and economically disadvantaged, to turn their hurt and frustration into art through drumming and dance. In 1992, she went on a highly publicized 47-day hunger strike to protest the discriminatory U.S. policy against Haitian people. In reference to the act, she stated, “My job is to create a useful legacy.”
Dunham died on May 21, 2006 in New York City of natural causes, but the profound legacy that she worked for tirelessly throughout her life and career will continue to influence generations to come.
Already a modern historical figure at the modest age of 33, Misty Copeland is the first African-American woman to be named Principal Ballerina for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Copeland was a dance prodigy despite her unique and less-than-ideal circumstances in terms of the dancing world. Born on September 10, 1982, she first began dancing at the age of 13 after she was introduced to ballet through her local Boys & Girls Club.
Raised in the San Pedro community of Los Angeles, Copeland was one of six children and caught between her parents’ divorce, custody battles, restraining orders, her mother’s new relationships and her 12-14 hour/day work schedule.
Copeland began her studies at the San Pedro Dance Center, and by the age of 14 she was the winner of a national ballet contest. She began homeschooling to make for time for dance and by age 16 had won a full scholarship to the most advanced classes of San Francisco Ballet, one of the top three ballet companies in the U.S.
By 1999 at age 17, ABT had offered her a scholarship, and Copeland had competed for and won a spot with their Junior Dance Troupe. She was still going back and forth between high schools and seeking her diploma at this time, and managed to maintain a 3.8 GPA. During this time Copeland also struggled with body image and cultural isolation, being one of the few dancers of color, as well as being curvier and deviating from the so-called ‘ideal’ body type of a ballet dancer.
By 2007, she was appointed soloist for ABT, one of the youngest ever. She continued breaking barriers, winning awards, and being a trailblazer for dancers of color, often being referred to as ‘the Jackie Robinson of ballet.’ By 2015, Copeland was promoted to principal ballerina at ABT, the first Black dancer to hold this position in ABT’s 75-year history.
Copeland continues to win honors, awards, and fellowships, and continues the legacy of #blackgirlmagic like Dunham before her. She has recently published an autobiography titled, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (2014). She lives with her fiance, Olu Evans (a cousin of Taye Diggs) in New York City.