9/15/14 Reflections on Katherine Dunham and Lavinia Williams (part one)

By Noel Nantambu Hall


 Katherine Dunham laid some sturdy foundations in arts and education that would not only benefit her era, but mushroom through the years and inspire new foundations and further growth. Education and the self-reaffirming power it wielded on an individual, group or society had clearly evidenced itself on her development and growing consciousness in the mid-nineteen thirties, and at the forefront were dance and anthropology.

Dunham’s holistic approach to education was introduced in 1945 when she opened her school in NYC. The idea for the school had been formulated as early as 1938 and to cite Sally Sommer, “although technique class were the heart of the school, they were supplemented by courses in humanities, philosophy, languages, aesthetics, drama and speech.” …

Dunham opened her school with these specific goals, as per Lynne Fauley Emery in Black Dance in the United States from 1619-1970:

  1. To develop a technique that would be as important to the white man as to the Negro.
  2. To attain a status in the dance world that would give to the Negro dance-student the courage really to study and a reason to do so.
  3. And to take our dance out of the burlesque…to make it a more dignified art.” She further stated she wanted a school “where I can train dancers in the knowledge and use of primitive rhythms.

Before Alvin Ailey, Katherine Dunham fashioned and influenced specific aspects of Afro-America’s and America’s cultural experience in exquisitely well-crafted theatrical dance works that would spawn further innovations in dance theater, and approaches to its educational goals and principles. To this end she applied the tools of Education holistically and succeeded spectacularly, at home and abroad. However, the liberal dance-establishment people at the time were not impressed with her goal of concentrating on “Negro” culture. These same people had a hard time accepting Jazz as an art form. Despite the challenges that may have caused, for a period of ten years, or more, the school stressed the Dunham Technique– a “combination of classical ballet with Central European, Caribbean and African elements.”


Many renowned and diverse artists such as Geoffrey Holder, James Dean, Harry Belafonte, Jennifer Jones, Marlon Brando, Arthur Mitchell, Lucille Ellis and Tommy Gomez, to name but a few, studied at the school and were educated and influenced by a faculty ranging from lecturer/anthropologist Margaret Mead to dramatist Lee Strasberg.

Many African-American dance artists who studied and danced in the Dunham Company then passed on her technique and philosophy to their students: teachers such as Syvilla Fort, Talley Beatty, Carmencita Romero, Walter Nicks and Lavinia Williams, again to name but a few. The seeds of inquiry and self-discovery sown by Educators are so vital for their student’s growth, and one never knows how those sprouts will manifest themselves. But I am sure you have, as have I, been more than heartened and felt justified when we have seen instances of the fruits of our educational and civic labors come to fruition. One such artist and educator was Lavinia Williams who shared her gifts and vast ancestral knowledge with the utmost love, joy, caring and fun any student could ever ask from a teacher, or elder.


Many of her fellow artists, educators, writers and students have lauded her wit, charm and expertise, among them Joe Nash the late Dance Historian, who was a life-long friend and admirer, Jean Leon Destine Syvilla Fort, Talley Beatty, Carmencita Romero, Walter Nicks and Lavinia Williams, and legend Katherine Dunham.

Suzette Carter Saulnier sums up her total impact and intense connection with her students when she says, “One of Lavinia’s many special gifts was her ability to make every person with whom she had contact feel as if they were extraordinary and special. I love you LAVINIA. I will always love you, and for me you live always.”

Lavinia Williams 1

Miss Dunham (“Miss D”) had this to say of her on her passing: “It is true that Lavinia Williams Yarborough was a great dancer. She came to join our company at a very young age. She toured with us as a featured dancer in our company. She made films with us in Hollywood, and she performed with us in night clubs. She was admired wherever we went. But for me, Lavinia’s greatest gift to the world was her teaching. Her expertise, this body which was for her a religious object to keep always in a perfect state as an example for her students. Her patience with children, with the stars that she has formed…with people less gifted, these things I remember with a total admiration. She loved her profession and humanity in general. She loved Haiti profoundly and now today Haiti has lost not only a great artist but an unforgettable person with her death. Stay with us, Lavinia, and continue to guide us to produce the dancers of the future.”

Friends of Lavinia Williams, a Port-au-Prince group had this to say, “… an amazing woman who has touched the lives of generations of dancers and was important in the history of dance – especially, the dance heritage of the Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean tradition.”

And I would add, the spreading and keeping of Miss Dunham’s legacy a live.

To experience more Katherine Dunham magic click below:

Katherine Dunham and Dancers- The Casbah



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  1. Very informative . Always so much to learn of Ms. Dunham ‘a legacy .

  2. Quite informative, inspirational and an awareness that the writer was touched and influenced by the artiste.

  3. Hey Noel, This is a great and timely piece of work. There is so much work yet to do in black dance scholarship. I look forward to the next installment. carl paris

  4. Pingback: Famous Choreographers – Jazz Setting The Barre

  5. The Katherine Dunham Company became an incubator for many well known performers, including Archie Savage, Talley Beatty, Janet Collins, Lenwood Morris, Vanoye Aikens, Lucille Ellis, Pearl Reynolds, Camille Yarbrough, Lavinia Williams, and Tommy Gomez.

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