9/16/14 Reflections on Katherine Dunham and Lavinia Williams (part two)

By Noel Nantambu Hall


On her passing Mme. Williams was recognized by the Haitian government with an official national funeral and a posthumous award, Grand Officer De L’ Ordre National Honneur et Merite. She is survived by daughters Sharon and Sara, both of whom are active in the dance field. Sharon, a master percussionist and Sara, a former leading dancer with the Harkness and Atlanta ballets, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

I met Lavinia in 1962 on my first, of several, summer dance courses at the University of the West Indies, in Jamaica, my birthplace, where she taught for many years. She electrified me from the moment I first laid eyes on her. Coming from a class prior to hers, I walked in to see her standing on one leg as she developed the other vertically past her ear.

Everyone was astounded and in awe, a few left the class feeling overwhelmed. I was absolutely fascinated and felt drawn to stay. Something I have always been glad I did because the class experience was physically and spiritually uplifting, and remained so through the years. Something I was to see her do and sensed she did to all her students through the years, as has been attested above; hence, our bond grew from teacher/student, to encompass mentor, friend and substitute-teacher.


We revived our bond and my studies with her in 1969 at the “original” Clark Center, on 8th Ave. between 50th and 51st Street, in Manhattan. A home and an aesthetically nourishing and nurturing haven for dancers, choreographers, teachers and emerging artists and companies, spearheaded by visionary, Alvin Ailey. Teachers, dancers, and the lot such as; Olatunji, Eleo Pomare, Chuck Davis, Martial Roumain, Andy Torres, Ella Moore, Michael Peters, Charles Moore, Judith Jamison, Rod Rodgers, Barbara Roan, Mary Hinkson, Jill Williams, Carmen De Lavallade, Fred Benjamin, Geoffrey Holder, Glen Brooks, Alvin Ailey and his company and of course Lavinia, and many, many others of that era. It was a wonderfully well-rounded dance environment on many levels offering a rich variety of concerts and techniques in diverse dance idioms, managed by then “dance mother,” Louise Roberts; both are truly missed today.

Our growing relationship lasted until her passing in July, 1989. She was born on July 2 and we share the same Sun sign as fellow Cancerians.

I was, needless to say, extremely elated to be one of her two assistants in two workshops on “The Katherine Dunham Technique” presented by the Ailey American Dance Center, in 1979, at the request of Mr. Ailey, which culminated in a workshop demonstration on April 9th. Included were works choreographed by Lavinia from the Repretoire of “Ballets D’Haiti.” Ailey had not studied with Miss Dunham but was a great admirer and champion of her and her ground breaking accomplishments. In 1987 he presented his company in a reconstruction of several of her works, “The Magic of Katherine Dunham,” which Ms. Dunham directed.

pd0008_enlargeI had the distinct pleasure and honor of being treated to one of those concerts at City Center, by Lavinia, and later taken to Ms. Dunham’s dressing room to meet her. The icing on the cake was when she graciously autographed my program. Talk about “Ode to Joy!”

In those weeks of the workshops, one lasting five weeks, Lavinia took us through the full gamut of Dunham’s Barre Warm-up, with its primary warm-ups of pelvic and calf stretches, “drop recoveries,” vertebral isolations of the spine, and various barre stretches. These were followed by Progressions that included elements from the barre work combined with pelvic, ribcage, shoulder and head isolations in loco-motor sequences. Also included were runs and small jumps, prances combined with turns, grand jete´s, released and contracted turns, par terre and en l’air.

Combinations included the dance vocabulary of traditional Afro-American folk culture, such as “Ballin’ the Jack,” and the sacred dances of Haiti; for example, Petro, Ibo, Congo, Yenvalou, Banda, Mayi, Nago, Coye, Danse Juba, etc. Sacred dances that had inspired and been in large measure the nucleus of Ms. Dunham’s technique and source material for many of her choreographic works. Works strongly influenced by her anthropological field work in the Caribbean, namely Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, Martinique, Guadeloupe and in particular Haiti.

In 1953 Ms. Williams accepted an offer to teach and work with the National Folkloric Troupe in Haiti. In 1954, she founded the Haitian Institute of Folklore and Classical Dance and spent over thirty-six years doing extensive research on the Dance and Folklore of Haiti, returning to America intermittently for public appearances and engagements.

In 1981, she hosted “A Celebration of Women in Dance,” honoring female dancers from the Dunham company, 1940-45, sponsored by the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center. “Her witty reminiscences of the early Dunham years were both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.” – Joe Nash

The anthropological, cultural and artistic experiences she had with Ms. Dunham deepened with her further inquiry in all things Haitian and that knowledge she shared with students in not only Haiti but in Antigua, the Bahamas, Germany, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad, extending and encompassing an awareness of Ms. Dunham’s legacy and her own pioneering work. In the ensuing years she also taught at several colleges and universities throughout the United States, and at New York City dance studios in addition to Clark Center, such as STEPS Studio and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center where her book “Haiti Dance” served as the standard text for Black history dance classes.

Included also in those rigorous weeks of Dunham workshop studies were many of the songs and lore connected with the Haitian dances we learned and perspectives on Ms. Dunham as a social activist and parental figure. She also shared with us Ms. Dunham’s philosophy that it was important for an artist to be as rounded, self-sufficient and responsible as possible. To that end, Ms. Dunham made each performer in her company be in charge of their costumes and keeping them in good repair. And being a good parental figure, the members of her company had curfews to boot.

In further keeping with and augmenting Ms. Dunham’s educational principles the Ailey workshop participants had to keep a journal of our learning experience and further personalize that learning with notes, comments, drawings and anything else we felt moved to include. I still have my journal to this day and it has been a wonderful reference repository for me through the years.


Many of the folk and ritual dances of Haiti have been described in clear, rich detail by Mme. Williams in her book Haiti Dance and by many other archivists and writers. I’d like to highlight one such dance: danse Yanvalou, as an example of the freedom of the torso and spinal column which Ms. Dunham brought back from Haiti and introduced to American dance. The expressiveness of the torso that freedom allowed and the cultural links it evidenced, from Africa to the Caribbean to the Americas, resonated then and continue to do so today.

Danse Yanvalou honors the ancestral deities of the sea and the serpent deities Damballah Wedo and his wife Aida Wedo. As described by the late Haitian anthropologist Dr. Henry Frank in Caribbean Dance from Abakua to Zouk, in the execution of this dance the participants emulate the movements of a snake and the waves of the sea by moving gracefully.

Here is a description by Ms. Dunham; “The movement of the yonvalou is slow…It is fluid, issuing from the base of the spinal column, mounting the spinal column to the base of the skull, at the same time penetrating and involving the solar plexus, the plexus sacre (and) the pelvic girdle…”

There are two types of Yenvalou: Yenvalou- Doba, a ritual dance originating from Nigeria and Dahomey, where the dancers bend forward, and Yenvalou Debout, where the dancers perform upright. When we see the “Wading in the Water” section of Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations we are witnessing the movements of danse Yenvalou and consciously or un-consciously experiencing a retelling/unfolding, on-going visual tapestry and synchronization of the dance aesthetics of Mother Africa, the Caribbean and the growth and richness of American dance. Made possible by the pioneering accomplishments of Ms. Dunham and the spreading, underscoring and addition research to those accomplishments by Mme. Lavinia Williams Yarborough.


 Hence, when the Ailey Company performs Revelations around the globe, as they have done for decades that African/Caribbean movement aesthetic is experienced and enjoyed by millions globally and Ms. Dunham’s influence and legacy, kept alive for so many years by Mme. Lavinia Williams’ teaching, lives on.

In case you missed part one- click here:


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