"Katherine Dunham’s Cinematic Engagement with Haitian Vodoun"
Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) was one of the most critically and commercially successful dancers of the twentieth century. She established and ran the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the earliest self-supporting predominantly Black dance company and one of the first modern dance troupes to achieve international success. She was also one of the first African Americans to conduct anthropological fieldwork, one of the earliest scientifically trained ethnographic filmmakers, and the first anthropologist to explore the function of dance in rituals and community life. The Vodoun rituals she observed as a graduate researcher in mid-1930s Haiti played a formative role in her choreography. Her performance method combined Caribbean cultural forms with ballet and U.S. modern dance practices and has had a profound but rarely acknowledged influence on twentieth-century dance.
This paper examines Dunham’s ethnographic footage of Haitian Vodoun to shed light on her immersive and life-long engagement with the religion. Dunham came to regard Haiti as her second home and would eventually achieve the status of mambo (priestess), the highest rank in Vodoun’s religious hierarchy. Mindful of the negative perception of Haitian and Jamaican women’s lives that fellow Black U.S. anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston outlined in "Tell My Horse" (1938), I show how Dunham’s film work elucidates both the sacred and gender-inclusive nature of Vodoun, the majority of whose practitioners are women. Dunham’s footage informed her choreography and close scrutiny of her cinematic subjects reveals their authorial contributions to a groundbreaking dance practice that sought to celebrate the beauty, dignity, and sacred artistry of Black Caribbean women.
Hannah Durkin is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Department of American and Canadian Studies and a Postdoctoral Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham, UK. Her current project examines early Black and Jewish women ethnographic filmmakers’ pioneering contributions to art and anthropology. Her previous research explored cinematic and literary representations of Black dance. She has published articles in the International Journal of Francophone Studies, Irish Journal of American Studies, Journal of American Studies, New Review of Film and Television Studies and Slavery & Abolition and has a book chapter forthcoming in Imaging Frederick Douglass (Liverpool University Press). She is also the author of a forthcoming monograph on the screen careers and writings of Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham contracted to Illinois University Press and co-editor with Celeste-Marie Bernier of Visualising Slavery: Art Across the African Diaspora (Liverpool University Press).