In this piece of performative scholarship I show how the dance technique developed by Katherine Dunham is rooted in anthropological fieldwork and theory, and constitutes an embodied form of liberatory knowledge.
For more than 30 years now, I have been studying and performing Haitian folkloric dance. This video is from a performance at the University of Florida in 2012. These are the dances of the Haitian vodou, born of the enslaved people brought to the island of Hispaniola. The dances are an embodied history and present-day form through which people experience, embed, move, and consecrate their lives. I first began studying Haitian dance in New York City in the early 1980s, and it turns out it was an exceptionally lucky accident that a friend dragged me into class (until then I had studied only classical ballet and several styles of modern dance). Without knowing it, I was studying with the founder of Haiti’s national ballet, the incomparable Jean Léon Destiné. He had also been a member of Katherine Dunham’s company, and it was through him and through Haitian dance that I first became interested in Dunham’s life and work. After I moved to Los Angeles, I founded a Haitian dance troupe, and we performed for over 10 years throughout Southern California and in Haiti. I also was lucky to study with Elle Johnson, who had also been a Dunham student in the 1940s in New York, and who was good friends with Destiné. When Elle moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, she joined the Lester Horton company.