Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois to parents Albert and Fanny Dunham. She was of mixed heritage with African, Madagascan, Canadian-French and American Indian ancestry. Dunham was raised in Joliet, Illinois and didn’t begin formal dance training until her late teens.
In 1931, at the age of 22, Katherine Dunham opened her first dance school, with the help of her teacher Madame Ludmila Speranzeva. The school, located in Chicago, soon became famous for its dancers who performed the modern dance ballet, “Negro Rhapsody.” Dunham graduated from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology. She later earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. While an undergraduate, Dunham opened another school, the Negro Dance Group where in four years she trained 150 black youth.
In 1936, Dunham was granted a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship to do field research in the West Indies on dance and anthropology. Upon her return to the United States, she incorporated the music and dance of Haiti in dance techniques and her instruction. In 1938, she became the dance director for the highly acclaimed Ballet Fedre. The following year Dunham married John Pratt, the ballet’s costume and set designer. In 1940, Dunham founded the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Soon she and her dancers were propelled to stardom when they received roles in movies such as Cabin in the Sky.
Pratt and Dunham adopted a French Martinique girl, Marie Christine Columbier, in December of 1952. The family lived in Dakar, Senegal from 1965 to 1969 where Dunham now studied West African dance. Upon their return to the United States she accepted a position on the faculty at Southern Illinois University. After her retirement from teaching in 1974, Dunham opened the Katherine Dunham Center in East Saint Louis where she spent part of her time, the other half in Haiti, until her death on May 21, 2006.