joy of movement & the katherine dunham technique

November 30, 2018
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Beyond the courtyard, up three flights of stairs, the sound of a mesmerizing Yonvalou rhythm spilled out of the Cumbe dance studios onto the courtyard of Restoration Plaza in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Inside the classroom, Penny Godboldo, teacher, stood at the front, her fingers resting on the stem of her spine; and in the front row was Aimee Cox, also a teacher, but on this day, a student. Godboldo was in town to teach a series of Katherine Dunham Technique classes, which were organized by Cox, a Yale University professor in African-American studies and Anthropology, who is a certification candidate in the Dunham Technique.

“If Ms. Dunham were still alive and living in Brooklyn she would be teaching at Cumbe,” Cox said. “She would want people to enjoy movement and be connected. Dunham is inherently communal. It’s for everybody. That’s how the technique evolved. It’s about being in the community.”

Aimee Cox and Penny Godboldo practicing Dunham Technique at Alvin Ailey Studios (photo: Tamara Warren)

Godboldo welcomed the students. She spoke to them in a gentle yet firm manner, asked for names and permission to move their bodies, a way of letting them know that, regardless of skill, her students are seen. In this space, the dancers — who ranged from novice to professional — became part of a much larger community, one that extends to the far reaches of the globe, committed to preserving Dunham’s legacy as the original pioneer of Black dance. Goldboldo asked Cox, who is a trained Alvin Ailey dancer, to demonstrate an exercise; her lithe, muscular physique was enviable and statuesque, in regal form. For two hours, the dancers would be enveloped by live conga drums; their minds, bodies, and spirits in tune.

I knew how it felt to experience Dunham technique for the first time. 20 years ago, I wandered into one of Penny’s dance classes in Detroit. I remember feeling dizzied by the rigor, intrigued by discussions about dance in Haitian, Senegalese, and Cuban culture. I left the class feeling, at once, awake, spent, with a tingling in my body — and wanting more. Things Penny said about Dunham Technique early on stuck with me.

Dance Treasures: 17 Carnival of Rhythm 1941 from Dance Heritage Coalition on Vimeo.

It all went back to Ms. Dunham, a force of nature, and her extraordinary path: an African-American woman trained as an anthropologist, who in 1930 founded the first American Black dance company. She opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York in 1945 and earned accolades as both a Broadway and Hollywood performer and choreographer, serving as inspiration for students such as Alvin Ailey, Lena Horne, and Eartha Kitt. In 1967 Ms. Dunham relocated to East St. Louis, Illinois where she established the Performing Arts Training Center. She was interested in how dance from the African diaspora informed every aspect of culture, and what she could do to help the local community. Dunham’s work included thousands of exercises to isolate every part of the body, and choreography that captured the essence of what it is to move, to soar, to be free.

A typical Dunham technique class is divided into an extensive series of barre exercises, a section focused on center floor work, and progressions that move across the floor and are integral to choreography. Dunham marries the language of ballet with traditional dance from the African diaspora. In order to teach social dances to trained ballet dancers, Dunham broke down movement into percussive isolations for every part of the body, married to polyrhythms. Thus, the essence of the movement is preserved. Signature moves include the Dunham walk, the undulating spine in the fall recovery series, and the dynamic rocking horse.  Dunham technique requires incredible physicality and strength, and its influence is found in jazz and modern techniques. Rigorous training is required to be able to perform her repertoire, such as Shango, an interpretation of a Haitian Vodun ritual dance.

Katherine Dunham in Bal Negre, 1946 (photo: Vandamm Studio) (courtesy Library of Congress)

Katherine Dunham’s long list of lifetime accomplishments culminated with the award of the Kennedy Medal of Honor in 1983, and a National Medal of Honor in 1987. Yet those accomplishments went well beyond performance, and into her role as an activist. In 1944, she refused to perform in the segregated theaters of Louisville, Kentucky; in 1950, she filed a lawsuit against the prestigious Esplanada Hotel of São Paulo, Brazil that discriminated against her touring company (prompting Brazil’s legislature to pass a bill banning racial discrimination); and in 1992, when he was in her eighties, Dunham went on a 47 day hunger strike on behalf of Haitian refugees.

Well into her nineties, Dunham continued to develop parts of her dance technique and to train new teachers, to push her work forward. Penny was among those teachers and so was Keith Williams who met Penny in the early 1980s at the annual Dunham seminar. Master Dunham teachers who toured with her company also taught there.  “We were right there, getting it from her and from other master teachers,” says Williams. “We were humbled and honored to be a part of her developing her technique in intercultural communication and making an impact in East St. Louis.”

Godboldo later became co-director of the Institute for Dunham Technique Certification and organized Ms. Dunham’s visit to Detroit, where Penny headed the dance department at Marygrove College. Like many of Penny’s Detroit students, I traveled to East St. Louis to study with Ms. Dunham on several occasions. When Katherine Dunham entered the room, the entire energy shifted, and it was clear we were in the presence of greatness. Penny made sure her students understood the depth of the technique, and its emphasis on social justice, teaching it to at-risk children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. In 2018, Godboldo was awarded a Kresge Grant for her dedication.

“To use the stage for social justice and healing is something that’s rooted in Ms. Dunham’s work,” Williams said. “It’s such a deep, meaningful connection to who we are as a people, to our roots in the African diaspora. It’s so full-bodied. It is a way of life. It does go beyond the classroom and the stage. Penny’s doing that in Detroit.” Williams later directed Penny’s Detroit dancers in a devastating piece that used Dunham choreography and was based on the Underground Railroad. Entitled “Ties That Bind,” it has since grown into a modern Dunham master work.

While some dancers grew up in the Dunham tradition, others found it a necessary antidote to navigating art and life and the challenges of the academy. Ohio native Cox moved to New York to dance, training at Alvin Ailey and Dance Theatre of Harlem. But she was also drawn to the field of anthropology and received her doctorate from the University of Michigan.

“For me dance and storytelling are the same thing,” she says. “I realized anthropology was a space where I could explore both.” In addition to her work in academia, Cox teaches community-based yoga class. Throughout the lengthy process of certification, Cox said she hopes to integrate Dunham’s pedagogy with her field work. “[Dunham] devised art and research methodologies and created educational spaces that were responsible to community. It all started with a deep love for the people she was living with.”

While Dunham’s life has been documented in several biographies, it is the carrying forward of her philosophy in the technique that Godboldo,  Cox, and others in Dunham circles are most interested in.

“If we are going to understand the shit show that we’re in, we have to understand how to approach our practices. We have to approach with a deep love, beyond seeing people as subjects,” Cox says. “For me, in this current social and political environment, Katherine Dunham has never been more relevant. Her name should be as well known as Balanchine or Levi Strauss.”

Penny Godboldo’s Dunham technique classes are scheduled for Nov. 30 and Dec. 2 at Cumbe in Brooklyn. Additional classes will be offered next year at Cumbe.

(Tamara Warren has written for The New York Times, Vibe, Car and Driver, Rolling Stone, XXL, Architectural Digest, Vox, The Verge, and the Detroit Free Press. She is the founder of Le Car, a personal car shopping service and co-hosts the weekly Cheddar Rides show on the Cheddar news network. Tamara was raised in Detroit, Michigan and lives in Brooklyn, New York.)