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Katherine Dunham Research Showcase by Modern Moves

Katherine Dunham Research Showcase by Modern Moves featuring

– La Boule Blanche at London: An Evening of Partying and Performances (16th May)

– Archive Re-Posesssed: A Day of Presentations and Discussions (17th May)

Guest of Honour: Ms Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt

/// Report updated by madison moore ///

In May 2016, Modern Moves celebrated our 3rd birthday in our usual decadent fashion with a party and research showcase in honor of dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. If you didn’t know by now, Dunham has been a major source of inspiration for us here at Modern Moves as well as a driving force of the research work we do. In the summer of 2015 the Modern Moves team took an “All-American” road trip from New Orleans up to Chicago with a pit stop at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which houses the official papers of Katherine Dunham. We spent a week digging through her papers and watching archival footage of her performances, uncovering prized documents like records of how many luxury suitcases she kept, her housing deeds, tax returns, not to mention the juicy details on her love life and letters dealing with the pressures of being a successful black entertainer performing in an America still struggling with racism and segregation.


Modern Moves knows how to party, and what’s a research showcase without some dancing at the end? One of the things we discovered in Katherine Dunham’s archives is that the lady also knew how to party. Dunham researched dance across the Black Atlantic and created the first company of Black dancers in the world. Every month she organised a dance social in New York called La Boule Blanche,after nightclubs of the same name in Martinique and in Paris. At these socials, Brazilian, Antillean, Cuban, and North American musical genres were equally popular. Guests dressed up and shared Black Atlantic social dance and music with panache and flair. For our 3rd birthday we honored Miss Dunham’s playful and irrepressible spirit as well as Haiti and the French Antillles with La Boule Blanche London.

Audio story produced by Brenna Daldorph.

On the menu that evening was dancing, rum punch and Haitian canapés, of course, but also a lecture demo, performance and mini lesson on Artistic Kompa (Kompa is the signature couple dance of Haiti) by our friends Clifford and Gaelle Jasmin of Salsabor, Florida. We also enjoyed a very special pan-Caribbean DJ set by Modern Moves resident DJ WIlly the Viper from Paris, a floor-stompingly good performance by the London-based Zilo’Ka, known for their high energy Gwoka percussion, chanting, and dance, and lastly (but certainly not least!) special performances by our associated researcher Francesca Negro and advisory board member Magna Gopal– two original choreographies that would have definitely spoken to Katherine Dunham’s own heart. Francesca performed a pan-Caribbean piece inspired by fragments of silent film and sound recordings we discovered in the Carbondale archives, incorporating movements from Antillean, Cuban, and Brazilian sacred dances, Magna brought performed a salsa choreography honouring the orisha Obatala, touched in an ineffable way by her Indian heritage.


Day 2 of the Katherine Dunham Research Showcase, which we dubbed “Archive Reposessed,” featured traditional, conference style presentations by the Modern Moves team. Gina Athena Ulysse set the stage with a performance lecture on “I$sland Repo$$e$$ed: Katherine Dunham*Post-Quake Ayiti* and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” Drawing on race, queer studies and star studies, madison moore gave us “Diva Theory,” a look at Katherine Dunham as diva. From there Leyneuf Tines spoke on Damballa and Yanvalou,” with a follow up by Elina Djebbari on “Katherine Dunham and the Black Atlantic: An Artistic Journey from the Caribbean to West Africa” Ananya Kabir gave us a close look into Dunham’s relationship to Brazil with “Brazil in the Imaginary of Katherine Dunham,” and we closed the show out with a very special conversation between Magna Gopal and Katherine Dunham’s daughter Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, who flavored the room with anecdotes and growing up on the road.


All told it was a superb two days of conversation and music, exchange and cocktails. But it was also an excellent way to think about how to marry pleasure and scholarship, fun and research. We at Modern Moves are deeply committed to exploring the politics of pleasure. Stay tuned for the announcement of our next research showcase because there’s definitely more to come.


To mark our third birthday, and ten years of the passing of the  pioneering dancer, choreographer, and intellectual Miss Katherine Dunham, Modern Moves presents La Boule Blanche at London: A Retro Party Miss Dunham researched dance across the Black Atlantic and created the first company of Black dancers in the world. During the 1940s and 1950s, she organised a monthly dance social in New York called ‘La Boule Blanche’, after nightclubs of the same name in Martinique and in Paris. At these socials, Brazilian, Antillean, Cuban, and North American musical genres were equally popular. Guests dressed up and shared Black Atlantic social dance and music with panache and flair.

After Fort-de-France, Paris, and New York, La Boule Blanche moves to London! To honour Miss Dunham’s playful and irrepressible spirit as well as Haiti and the French Antillles, the deepest sources of her inspiration, our legendary Anatomy Museum parties will be retrofitted and antilleanised on the 16th of May!

On the menu:

– A lecture-demo, performance and mini-lesson on ARTISTIC KOMPA by Clifford and Gaelle Jasmin of Salsabor, Florida! The return of DJ Willy the Viper from Paris with his inimitable pan-Caribbean sets!

– The return of Zilo’Ka with their high energy Gwoka percussion, chanting, and dance to the Anatomy Museum! A reconstruction of Katherine Dunham’s pan-Atlantic rhythms by Francesca Negro!

– And a guest appearance by Magna Gopal with a performance that will speak to Katherine Dunham’s own heart!

COME DRESSED in your RETRO BEST! Party like its 1955!

 Commissioned from the KCL kitchens:

Rum punch and Haitian canapes, including griot, piklis, and accra!

Book your tickets here for La Boule Blanche Party!


Modern Moves presents Archive Re-Possessed: A Day of Presentations and Discussions

In April 2015, the Modern Moves research team spent an intensive period researching Miss Katherine Dunham’s archives held at the Southern Illinois Library, Carbondale, USA. This rich visual, aural, and textual material supplements her published work, including her magnetic memoir of fieldwork in Haiti, ‘Island Possessed’. In homage to Miss Dunham’s extraordinary imagination, intellect, vivacity and spirit, we present our work in progress on her archives to her fans and to aficionados of Black Atlantic music, dance, and performance.

Long papers will be presented by Ananya Kabir, Madison Moore, Elina Djebbari, and Leyneuf Tines, with responses from Drs Michael Iyanaga, Melissa Blanco Borelli, Serena Volpi, and Zoe Norridge. We are delighted to open the day with a keynote lecture/ performance by Professor Gina Athena Ulysse of Wesleyan College, USA, entitled: “I$sland Repo$$e$$ed: Katherine Dunham*Post-Quake Ayiti* and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.”

The day will close with a ‘dancer’s response to the work of a dancer’, by Ms Magna Gopal, and with a q and a session with our guest of honour, Ms Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, the daughter of Katherine Dunham and John Pratt.

Come and learn more about the life, art and heart of an extraordinary, audacious, and inspiring woman who was ahead of her times in countless ways.

Book here for Part 2 of our fabulous Research Showcase!

Full programme here: DUNHAM SHOWCASE PROGRAM


Katherine Dunham and Modern Moves

Modern Moves director Ananya Kabir’s first article on the dance practice of Katherine Dunham has just been published in the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry! This article is based on initial research she did in the archives of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, in January 2014. This year, the Modern Moves team spent a week in the same archives and we are delighted to announce our intention to celebrate Modern Moves’ third birthday next year in conjunction with paying homage to Miss Dunham on the tenth anniversary of her death (21st May 2016). Look out for a signature Modern Moves event combining cutting-edge research and dance-floor flamboyance!
In the meanwhile, you can enjoy a rare clip of Miss Dunham dancing in her much-loved production L’Agya in our featured Video of the Month, and then read Ananya’s article, which discusses L’Agya in detail, on our Research Resources page. And the final section of our new Moving Story tells you about our visit to the Katherine Dunham Museum in East St Louis as well.


Publicity for Katherine Dunham's famous monthly social in New York, 'La Boule Blanche'-- featuring Tito Puente
Publicity for Katherine Dunham’s famous monthly social in New York, ‘La Boule Blanche’– featuring Tito Puente, the Mambo King, and his orchestra.
The Moving Blog

A Voyage Through Katherine Dunham’s Archive

Over the past few months I have been busy with all sorts and kinds of research, from attending vogue balls in Paris and Berlin to going on a special research visit to the Katherine Dunham Archives held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois — a place not too far from East Saint Louis, Illinois, where black performance talent like Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker and Tina Turner once held court.

For anyone interested in Katherine Dunham the archive presents a real treat: you’ll find materials ranging from original scores to Dunham’s own passport, and from costume drawings to Western Union telegrams (!). In addition, when leaving the archive I was told that 100 more boxes had just arrived, a research delight!

One of the most memorable things I found in the archive was a 1945 New York Times article about how Katherine Dunham had purchased a $200,000 house at 14 East 71st Street on the Upper East Side, an extremely wealthy area of New York City, to live in and to act as a headquarters for her school. This was big news given that her neighbors were the Fricks, the Lehmans and the Guggenheims, as stated in the press release, which Dunham used to drop the news.

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Press release for the purchase of 14 East 71st Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

The interesting thing about the article was that the tone was very much about how a black woman was able to purchase such an expensive home, particularly during a time in the US when African Americans still did not have property rights and indeed could not purchase their own homes in certain areas (and would not be able to for at least another 20 more years). Of course, the article never spelled any of this out directly, but the date it was published along with the fact that the paper talked to Dunham’s neighbors to get their take on what they felt about having an unknown black woman buy such an expensive house lets us infer the punch line of the article. “I’ve never heard of her,” one neighbor commented — the shade of it all. Indeed, the house was actually not purchased by Dunham herself but by lawyers, which drives this point home even further.

When I tell you that the archive holds deep financial records of Dunham’s company it sounds pretty boring, I’m sure. But these financial secrets tell a colorful story of their own about the labor that goes into making a performance happen. You’ll find box office statements showing how well a performance did in a given place, contracts stipulating what rights Katherine Dunham has and what rights the hosting venue does not have – for instance changing the performance at the last minute was not an option. There were even details on how much a single performance cost. We even know how much her dancers made. For a February 11th performance in 1944 at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, just a stone’s throw away from Yale University, Dale Wasserman, the highest paid dancer for that show, made $125.00. Ora Leak, one of the lowest paid, earned $45.00.

But it’s not just all ledgers and receipts. Fans sent letters professor their love and the great black American opera singer Marian Anderson wrote her a letter requesting a donation for charity. Some of the juicy stuff — the real tea — included letters from fans who were desperate to be a part of the Company as well as audition headshots from prospective dancers that included their professional resume at the back. On July 25, 1955 Miss Mary Irene Wemberly of Chicago auditioned for the Company. Her “Chief Ambition,” as it said on her resume, was to “become a member of The Katherine Dunham Dance Group.”

Something tells me that Dunham was a bit of a diva, not unlike most celebrities of her stature – and she was a celebrity. On November 15th, Dorothy Gray, an assistant to Katherine Dunham, informed the Locust Theater in Philadelphia that their choice of hotel would simply not do. “In Philadelphia Miss Dunham does not want to stay at Walton Hotel,” the Telegram read. “I suggest Bellevue Stratford-Ritz.” Built by George C. Boldt, the name behind the famous Waldorf-Astoria luxury hotel in New York, the Bellevue Stratford-Ritz was a luxury hotel built at the turn of the century that was meant to compete with its New York counterpart. For me, this really solidified that Dunham absolutely penetrated the laps of luxury, which during this period was almost certainly a majority white world (pre-desegregation).

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Carnival queerness in the Dunham archive.

In my work I am always on the hunt for queerness, as I am interested in how people make space for themselves outside of a dominant hetero-patriarchal gender binary. I knew that there had to be some type of queerness when looking through Dunham’s archive, and I was pleased to find at least two images that satisfied my thirst. One of them shows a dancer in what must be a carnival or Mardi Gras costume, a beaded headdress, drum beating, and you can tell he is moving a great deal because one of his feathers has fallen on the floor from his headpiece.

The Caribbean has a great history of homophobia, but it always seems like Mardi Gras and carnival are two events that are malleable in the way those types of parties allows participants to break out of the normative roles of the everyday. This would, of course, tap right into Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the carnival as providing just that type of experience.

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Drag, in 1944

The other queer image is a totally static one, meaning there is no movement. It shows a male performer in a type of drag. His face is painted, the lips white and the line of the eyes stretched out and up, and he wears a long half wig with a cropped headpiece on top. I liked this image because, in 1944, we see that there were specific types of queerness that were possible through performance.

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Posing shine.

The last connection I noticed, one that is extremely powerful in bridging the gap between the legacies of Katherine Dunham’s dance and the movement of pop culture is an image of two dancers. One of them is shiny, very shiny, as he stands there in an athletic pose. There is already some The image shows a male dancer, relatively sweat-covered, holding a stretched out pose in a dance studio. The leg is curled back and up in the shape of an “L,” the arms cocked back as if attached to springs.

Grace Jones Island Life

Taken together, these two images appear to be inspiration for, or at the very least diasporically connected to, Grace Jones’ 1985 album Island Life. In that famous image, shot by Jean-Paul Goude, Jones’ shiny Caribbean body poses in a similar fashion: leg curled up and back in the shape of an “L,” arms stretched out. While the poses might not be exactly the same, they do appear to come from a similar movement archive and indeed the sheen that appears across both images is an unmistakable trope of blackness.


The Moving Blog

Lindy Hopping In London

‘Frequently when watching variations of the Lindy Hop in the Savoy Ballroom, I have seen individuations that might have come directly from folk, even tribal areas’… So observed Katherine Dunham in one of her essays of 1941, ‘The Negro Dance’, written soon after her pioneering field research in the French Caribbean and Jamaica researching different kinds of Afro-diasporic dance.

I have always considered Katherine Dunham a goddess-guru figure, and I’ve always longed to dance the Lindy Hop, but I didn’t imagine that- like her- I would find myself one day in the midst of a packed room of Lindy Hoppers, making observations on the similarities between Lindy Hop and traditional dances of the Caribbean islands.

And how appropriate that it was the folkloric dance from the French Caribbean that should have led me to the Lindy Hop party where I found myself recalling not just Dunham’s words, but all those videos of classic Lindy Hopping on You Tube, which at a certain point in my life (writing the grant proposal that made Modern Moves a reality, to be precise) I watched obsessively!

It all started with yet another fabulous class in Brixton with the London-based dance and drumming group Zil’oKA one Saturday (30th August 2014), which focused on ‘mende’, the Gwoka carnival rhythm from Guadeloupe. As an enthusiastic group learnt an energetic choreography full of high kicks, jumps and lunges, one of the participants commented how close these moves were to certain steps of the African American vernacular tradition. As Erica demonstrated the parallels between the Mende steps and the Cakewalk, I felt transported to research heaven.

Afterwards, we sat in Brixton’s Windrush Square, eating delicious Venezuelan arepas and chatting about African-heritage social dances. My new friend turned out to be a Lindy Hopper! And she was going to a Lindy Hop event that very evening— before I knew it, I was clicking ‘join’ on the FaceBook event page for ‘Stop, Drop, and Rollers’. It didn’t matter that I had never taken a single Lindy Hop class—I would simply observe (that’s the best thing about dance research—it saves you from feeling neglected or out of place on the dance floor. ‘I’m taking notes, don’t you know?)

So now it was 8.30 pm on a Saturday night and– while I was getting ready for a night of salsa at ULU to celebrate MamboCity’s 15th anniversary of party-throwing- I was also multi-tasking for my Lindy Hop pre-party. At Windrush Square Erica and I had chatted about the difference between the salsa and Lindy Hop scenes—never the twain would meet, it would seem from that conversation. Ironic that I was doing both the same evening, and trying to devise a look that would work for both!

‘No heels’, Erica had warned—music to my ears, as I prefer flats any day. I had my salsa shoes in a shoebag and some flat pumps on my feet. The ULU party theme was ‘black and white’. Typically, the only suitable clothes I had at hand were my white Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur pants and a black t-shirt emblazoned with the ‘Brazouka’ show logo. Not really a conventional salsa outfit, but I’ve been dancing salsa long enough to know what works for me. I’ve even danced salsa in a sari on several occasions recently…. But a new scene—that’s quite different!

At least with my idiosyncratic clothes no one would identify me as coming over from the dark side. ‘Too much booze and sleaze’ is what, it seems, some Lindy Hoppers associate with salsa dancers. Plus passing as Brazilian (which is what I am often assumed as being in Latin dance circles) always helps as Brazilians are considered by most to be charmed dancers. I pushed some faux-Amazonian earrings through my earlobes and hoped that they, together with the ‘Brazouka’ t-shirt, would make me appear a slightly less weird alien to London’s Lindy Hoppers.

When I arrived at the party I realised that there was no way I could fit sartorially. I seemed to have entered a time warp of sorts. The women were nearly all dressed in little printed or polka dotted frocks and flat canvas pumps. The men were preppy – waistcoats, pleated trousers, ties, flat caps. Everyone was boogieing as though it was 1922. Percussively, I was in 4/4 land. A live band called ‘The Dixie Ticklers’ was playing jazz and swing. The crowd was heaving and the standard of dancing, simply amazing. I sat down at a window seat and simply gaped.

photo 1

photo 2

Surreally, the venue was the London club Nomad, where I often drop by on Wednesdays for a long-running kizomba night. Talk about multi-layered dance scenes! Angolan kizomba, with its small, discreet moves, much-vaunted ‘connection’ deriving from close body contact, vs. Lindy Hop, the classic swing dance from Harlem, showy, stomping, acrobatic, and lithe. And the demographics- the kizomba night’s predominantly black crowd vs. this party’s mostly white dancers (I spotted one black woman and one South Asian man).

There was, however, a star couple from Korea, and who, in their matching Burberry checks, were dancing up a funky and humorous storm. Watch them here competing at the Lindy Finals of the 2014 London Swing festival!

Where did the black investment in Lindy go, I wondered, not for the first time. And where were the hips in this Afro-diasporic dance? The energetic bounce, kicks, and twists of classic Lindy kinesthetics seemed to have banished all lingering traces of the ‘ginga’ and ‘bunda’-aesthetics of the kizomba-world that populated this very room each Wednesday. But I didn’t have time to wonder for too long—for, to my delight—a friend of Erica’s (‘a dance polyglot like you’, she said) was coming up gallantly to ask me to dance. And—I was away!—dancing my very first Lindy Hop to the sweet sound of the Dixie Ticklers!

photo 3

The night turned out to be pretty fabulous, actually. The songs were long, and I danced for about an hour. How did I do it, without a single class in the dance genre? Well, firstly, by being a good listener—to the rhythm of the music as well as its accents for embellishment; secondly, by being a very attentive follower— even on more than one occasion, faithfully mirroring my leader; thirdly, by letting go all restraint and fear of parody and recalling the moves of the Harlem Lindy Hoppers in the YouTube videos. ‘I can’t believe this is your first time’, said more than one dance partner to me. I was so gratified!

I tore myself away like Cinderella to make the midnight cut off point for entry to the ULU salsa party. It was the first time probably that I was entering a salsa party drenched in sweat from another form of dance… and with the moves of that dance form still imprinted on my muscle memory…. But it worked to my advantage, for, as I found myself dancing in a pachanga style it now felt to me like a speeded up Lindy Hop. That was not at all surprising given that the pachanga (which developed in response to evolving charanga music from Cuba), like the Lindy Hop several decades before it, crystallised in the dance crucible of uptown New York.

That Saturday was one of my best dance nights ever, as I finished with some crazy improvised bachatas in the kizomba room (why those dance styles are made to share a floor is another story, but it worked for me)—it was really a night when 4/4 rhythm showed me its hidden magic. Of course I had some fantastic salsa dances too and if one adds the great Zil’oKA class to the mix it was altogether a day that London had allowed me to cross all kinds of Afro-diasporic rhythm worlds in the space of 12 hours.

My unexpectedly lovely evening and the warmly welcoming Lindy Hoppers made me think how, all too often, we are curious about dances we don’t have expertise in or knowledge of, but feel too shy or inadequate to explore them. There are many people who are content to shine in one partner dance—and that’s absolutely fine; but others who might want to branch out are restrained by thoughts like ‘I’m going to look like an idiot’ and ‘I won’t know what to do’.

But expertise in one partner dance lends itself to another form more easily than we imagine. And a party should be a space of enjoyment, fun and experimentation. So– if you dance any form of couple dance with Afro-diasporic history, and are yearning to try another one—don’t miss an opportunity that may come your way! Your training in leading and following, turning and—most importantly—syncopation and breaking— will stand you in good stead.

Of course, it may be easier for followers than leaders, initially, to dip in and out of different dances. If you find yourself dancing with a man who is doing stuff you don’t really know, if he’s a good leader and you’re a good follower, you will do exactly that—follow. Which makes me wonder: at all those Harlem venues, when sounds and moves from Cuba and Puerto Rico mingled with African American sounds and moves, it must have been the followers—mostly women—who would have been the first meta-improvisers, those who would have found the space where these Afro-diasporic traditions met and transformed each other.

Another way to think of the power dynamics of so-called ‘leading and following’! In the meanwhile, I certainly shall be seeking out more London Lindy Hop parties….!