Black Joy, Black Power: Dancing the Legacy of Katherine Dunham

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On the banks of the wide, gray Mississippi River sit two cities. The better known St. Louis, Missouri boasts a tall, elegant national landmark: the Gateway Arch. And across the river is the Illinois city of East St. Louis, surrounded by silent traces of former industry, and nearly all-Black.

This is where, in the late 1960s, global dance legend Katherine Dunham put down roots and taught the arts of the African diaspora to local children and teenagers. The program she created runs to this day at the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities, revolutionizing lives with dance and culture. Classes are led by Ruby Streate, director of dance and education and artistic director of the Katherine Dunham Children’s Workshop.

Katherine Dunham interacts with a visitor, who places a pot on her head, in her museum.
International dance icon Katherine Dunham (right,) also an anthropologist, founded an art museum in East St. Louis, IL. ((Photographer unknown, Courtesy of Missouri History Museum Photograph and Prints collection. Dunham, Katherine Collection.))

Streate started dancing herself in the Dunham program as a self-described “angry 17-year-old,” saddled with grown-up responsibilities and with few outlets to express herself. Then, she says, “I started to really change my attitude, because I was wanting to perform really bad. My instructors knew I was talented—that I could do whatever I needed to do on stage.”

Today, she’s a culture-keeper, as one of Dunham’s most trusted teachers (Dunham died in 2006). “I’m proud of all of my students because all of them have learned the fact that they can do anything that they want to do,” Streate says.

Heather Beal is one of those students and recalls a choreography Streate put together based on Maya Angelous’ poem “Phenomenal Woman.” “Imagine, every day we are rehearsing, saying those words, ‘Phenomenal woman, that’s me,’” says Beal, one of thousands of East St. Louis residents who came through the welcoming doors of Katherine Dunham’s Children’s Workshop.

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“Imagine what that’s like for a 15-year-old girl every day to say––but also to embody it, because the choreography embodied that,” Beal says. “You don’t have any option but to be a phenomenal woman. So that foundation is priceless. And it’s the way that I teach children today.”

Ruby Streate and Heather Beal embrace one another and look into the distance
Heather Beal (right) was a student of Ruby Streate (left) at the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis, IL. (Christopher Phillips )

Beal runs a dance collective called The Seventh Floor, and like Dunham, brings a fierce sense of purpose to her dance. She also is director of audience services at the Black Repertory Theater in St. Louis. “I consider myself a truth teller,” says Beal. “The work I create is for Black folks. My movement is Black joy and Black activism. And I shine a mirror on what is happening in the world today.”

Beal is also a certified teacher of the Dunham Technique, a dance methodology created by Dunham in the late 1930s, which brings together elements of the dances she filmed over two years as a young anthropology student in Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique and Trinidad, as well as modern dance and ballet. The rigorous technique is credited for bringing Black dance to the classroom and to the stage, where it has mesmerized audiences globally and transformed the world of dance.

“She was Beyoncé before Beyoncé,” says Beal, describing Dunham’s extraordinary talent and widespread appeal, but also the savvy way she ran her own company, and her desire to connect to African diasporic culture. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Dunham’s company toured over 60 countries. She also made a mark on Broadway and in Hollywood, appearing in films like the 1943 musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Even as she aged out of her dancing years, Dunham was a well-connected cosmopolitan in high demand as a choreographer. She was also an outspoken activist long before the height of the civil rights movement. When she encountered East St. Louis in 1967, something touched a nerve. “I view East St. Louis as an outpost in the world,” she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It reminded her of Haiti. It felt like a place where she was needed.

Three woman dancers on a grassy field, wearing matching off-white blouses and flowing white skirts, are in synchronized flying pose, against a backdrop of the St. Louis skyline and iconic St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Dancers perform an excerpt of Choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams’ work “The Ties That Bind” (Jon Alexander)

“Miss Dunham could have chosen anywhere in the world to settle down, yet she chose East St. Louis—a challenged, impoverished, but prideful city that she felt some kind of connection to,” says Keith Tyrone Williams, a renowned St. Louis performing artist and teacher who grew up in East St. Louis and was transformed by a Dunham class he encountered in his late teens. “She obviously [felt] some sort of spiritual, emotional and mental connection with the people.”

Difficult circumstances continue in East St. Louis; the city has a high murder rate and low rates of employment. A particularly horrific moment in East St. Louis’ history is little known on the national stage. In 1917, after a labor dispute, a mob of white men rampaged through the city, driving Black families from their homes and businesses, and murdering over 100 Black people. The city paid some damages to the deeply traumatized Black community, but didn’t fully acknowledge what happened until 2017, when a commission examined the events and placed historical markers throughout the city—the start of a much-needed reckoning with the past.

Katherine Dunham sits at a press conference table beside Reverend Charles Koen, Poet Eugene Redmond, and two members of the Black Eqyptians street gang.
Katherine Dunham (center) participates in a press conference with Reverend Charles Koen, Poet Eugene Redmond, and two members of the Black Eqyptians street gang. Dunham recognized the need to build trusting relationships with local gangs, as well as Black Power leaders in order to improve young people's lives. (Courtesy Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections)

The East St. Louis that Dunham saw on that first visit was a shell of its former self: industry declined following World War II, and though white families fled for the suburbs, the city was still governed and policed largely by white folks, with very few jobs left for the remaining Black population.

Yet behind the tropes of a city in decline was a tightly held culture doing its best. Williams says, “Even in the midst of some challenges, growing up, it was a community that teachers, neighbors, elders and educators invested back into their community. East St. Louis has an incredible heart. And that’s what keeps me.”

Dunham wrote numerous proposals extolling the virtues of “socialization through the arts” and spent hours in meetings convincing funders that dance and culture could provide an alternative to gangs and violence. By 1972 her program became known as the Children’s Workshop. Dunham had enrolled over 1,000 students in her program, offered courses for college credit, founded a student dance company and opened a museum dedicated to African art. Her classes were free or affordable, giving all local kids the opportunity to attend—and she drew students in with martial arts and drumming courses in addition to dance. “Within a few years, Dunham had turned the troubled city... into an important hub of the Black Arts movement,” writes Joanna Dee Das in her book Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora.

Dunham’s program opened doors into culture, pride and discipline that have been powerful forces for many, whether they’ve stayed with dance like Beal and Williams, or gone on to other professions. “Being part of the Dunham family is an honor,” says dancer Jared Belk, grandson of Ruby Streate and son of master drummer James Belk. The honor, he says, is “to be able to be part of this legacy, see it preserved and help teach other people.”

East St. Louis dancers who participated in Dunham's dance and education programs perform in front of the Katherine Dunham Museum. (Jon Alexander)

And though Dunham’s Museum and Workshop struggle to raise adequate funds (according to reporting by Eric Berger, they raised only $50,000 in 2018), Beal is confident Dunham’s legacy will continue in East St. Louis, whether recognized more broadly or not.

“I want to make sure that the work that I’m doing is for the people, and to give back and not to be worried about recognition. Because ain’t nobody—nobody—going to recognize us, but us,” Beal says. “So as long as I acknowledge the people who poured into me and I continue to take what they’ve poured into me and pour into the generations that are behind me ... the legacy will never die.”

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Watch Beal and East St. Louis movement artists dance at the Mississippi River’s edge, in front of the Katherine Dunham Museum and in downtown East St. Louis. - Article written by Charlotte Buchen Khadra