“You Dance Because You Have To”: A BBC Radio 3 Programme on Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

September, 2003

Image of Katherine Dunham and uncredited partner

There are many ways to present dance on radio but a visual image is preferable if the discussion concerns elements of a form. The programme makers can then include descriptions of how the shaping of arms and legs display rhythm or portray expression and how contours of the torso fulfil the dancer’s intended personification. Radio though is an excellent tool to stir the mind’s eye especially if the words relate life stories and movement experiences in a descriptive way. The material can be presented to allow the listener to imagine and make sense of artistry he or she may never have had contact with. This was the task facing the producer, Richard Bannerman, of BBC Radio 3 in London, United Kingdom and I as the researcher. Bannerman contacted me to research and be the presenter for the 45-minute programme “You Dance Because You Have To” aired on 21 September 2003.

Interested in emerging American dance forms producer, Richard Bannerman submitted a proposal to BBC Radio 3 to make a documentary on Katherine Dunham. Bannerman knew Radio 3 wanted to explore new territories in dance and Katherine Dunham’s story was relatively unknown in Britain. Bannerman also found the repertory of The Alvin Ailey Dance Company inspiring and speculated that Katherine Dunham’s life would be a good starting point to discuss in a general way, the dance practices of African Americans. In our preliminary meeting it became clear to me that our programme had to respect the diversity of African American practices. Honouring Katherine Dunham as the progenitor of African American dance would be misleading and disrespect the legacy of other African Americans who contributed their own particular ways of knowing movement. I introduced Bannerman to Pearl Primus. Both Dunham and Primus were pioneering giants in the American dance pantheon with different ways of making dance. Since the programme was ultimately going to comment on the dance practices of African Americans, these two pioneers had to be discussed. Collecting life stories and reflections on movement and descriptions of individual interactions with works of Dunham and Primus would speak of the diversity that is American dance making than the celebration of any one artist.

Life stories and remembrances are valuable experiential source material. They have a distinct way of re-presenting reminisces of a person’s life and are representative of a particular event, time and place . Reminisces include anecdotes, public pronouncements, or private ramblings that characterise factual and experiential knowing. An abundance of life stories speaking of notable people and events cross reference each other and affirm a community of beliefs and confirm factual information. As oral histories, life stories affix different times describing the time now, the past and possibly a tone for the future . From the interviews we collected some 11 hours of interview material. The life stories and recollections covered the effects of slavery and tribulations of racism to choosing art practice and present day choreographic explorations. By talking with writers and choreographers who worked with or were inspired by either or both Dunham and Primus, the program provided a perspective on not just personalities, but also about dance making and the time and context in which dance making occurred. In particular, the choreographers spoke enduringly of sensate liminal experiences of movement confirming the efficacy of their embodied knowledge of Africanist movements. Bannerman as the astute editor devised our outline of whom, when, what, and how and I with his supervision wrote the links that tied the selected reminisces together.

Both Dunham and Primus were phenomenal, pioneering African-Americans who sought the roots of their cultural heritage through anthropological research. Both were dancers, choreographers, and writers. As Rosenwald Fellowship recipients, Dunham did her fieldwork in the West Indies/Caribbean in 1936 and Primus pursued her anthropological research in 1949 in West Africa. They returned to America with the authentic rhythms and dances of Africa and the Caribbean reinvigorating Africanist dance practices that had been degraded by years of slavery and then diluted into minstrel shows and vaudeville. What was their affect on practitioners, one and two generations later who, having been inspired by Dunham and Primus, cultivate new dance expressions and knowledge that extends from or parallels the form and content of Dunham and Primus’ work. The interview materials succeeded in delivering an enormous amount of information on the impact these women’s histories had and have on all American dance practice.

I presented a list of 10 dance historians and 10 practicing dance artists from both sides of the Atlantic from which 10 interviewees were chosen: Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Thomas F. DeFrantz, E. Gaynell Sherrod, dance historians from America, Ramsay Burt, dance historian from Britain, Kariamu Welsh Asante, dance historian and choreographer, Judith Jamison, artistic director, choreographer for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, artistic director, choreographer, Urban Bush Women, Sheron Wray, artistic director, choreographer for JazzXchange in Britain, and Robert Garland, choreographer in residence at Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Joan Peters, teacher of the Dunham technique at the Ailey School was also included. We were forced to use archive sound bites of Dunham because she declined an interview. Dunham stated that at this stage in her life she prefers to do live, film interviews. We also used sound bites of Primus who died in 1994. These archival recordings are linked with life stories and perspectives from our distinguished historians and dance makers. There are also sound bites from Joan Peters’ Dunham class at the Ailey School, Robert Garland’s rehearsal at DTH and music from the works of Dunham, Primus and choreographers interviewed.

The interview material chronicled the context, times, and dance practices of Dunham and Primus. Responding to questions designed to prop descriptive telling, the interviewees were eloquent and expressive in recalling moments of observing, embodying or synthesising the work of Dunham and Primus or describing the context of dance practices. The interview material was a wellspring of information dealing specifically with the embodiment of Africanist aesthetics. These descriptions offered contextualised understanding of the place of Africanist aesthetics in American dance. Judith Jamison’s recollections of working with Pearl Primus on reconstructing the West African dance Fanga (1949; reconstructed by Primus for Ailey company in 1974) was a life story that described more than just an event. Jamison’s recollections described her need to recall blood memories, past liminal sensations in order to perform specialised movement with the intentions Primus demanded for the dance. Jamison sought to remember or intuit the experience of having grown up dancing on the earth; a difficult task for a dancer trained in classical ballet and grown up in the urbane city of Philadelphia. Her recollection indicated embodied knowledge passes from one generation to the next. Jamison’s life story, told as only she could express it, had a particular way of treating self-description and created contextualised imagery not just a transparent self-portrait .

Kariamu Welsh Asante having worked with both Dunham and Primus acknowledged both as her inspiration for making political dance works that comment on events that affect her sensibilities as a citizen of the world. Ramona (1994) is a dance work created by Asante, which portrayed the fortitude of Ramona Africa, the only survivor of the 1985 bombing of the MOVE family by Philadelphia police and city officials. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar spoke of her work Batty Moves (1995), which uses the African American strategy of turning negative life degradations into positive, revisionist reclamations. Zollar draws on a sense of shared identity and similar Africanist body narratives she observed in Brazil, Nigeria, and Jamaica to enliven the female body. The movement of the buttocks is the starting point to explore histories and develop strategies for making dance that illuminates lived experiences. Political dance works resonant with a truth or illustrate an injustice that needs to be exposed. Both Primus and Dunham were activist using their art to denounce racist politics, and stand against prejudice, bigotry and ignorance. Primus’s Strange Fruit (1943) and Dunham’s controversial Southland (1951) are 2 examples of protest works created by these artists to confront social injustice head on.

In the broadcast both Ramsay Burt and Thomas DeFrantz explain how 20 th century Europeanist critical establishment may not have been interested in the experiences of African Americans as portrayed by Primus or appreciative of African American dance making as evidenced in Dunham’s merger of ballet and Caribbean aesthetics. Dunham and Primus though and other African American dance makers developed strategies, devised under direst, to reconcile the standards and needs of two worlds, Africanist and Europeanist. DeFrantz comments that these choreographic strategies created “dances of disguise”, dances that satisfied both the Europeanist gaze and sensibilities of the dancers. Dunham and Primus chipped away at those racialised strategies that invisiblised Africanist aesthetics. Their explorations enabled future generations to explore the merger of Africanist aesthetics with Europeanist to devise innovative dance expressions. Their embodiment of several movement vocabularies fostered different bodily narratives. The combination of training in ballet, contemporary, and Africanist dance idioms characterises the dance practices of Americans especially African Americans who ravelled in varied rhythms combined with complex articulations of torso, head, arms and legs. Dance practice became a means to recognise self in others, to participate in a process that acknowledged separate and shared histories and cherished aspirations.

Kariamu Welsh Asante speaking on the intricacies of African dance practices told of how the first colonizers of Africa described African dance frenzied, lascivious and lewd. These onlookers didn’t understand the aesthetic, the significance, meaning or place of dance in the African’s world. Dance acknowledged all phenomena from birth to death and special events like rites of passage, coronations and visiting dignitaries. Asante emphasised that everyone danced, children and elders, not because they could, “you danced because you had to dance”. Dancing was for spirit as well as physical well-being and as a member of a culture, a person danced to affirm her or his connection to that society. As Asante pointed out: “dancing was an affirmation of that society”. New approaches to dance making were instigated the moment the Europeanist gaze demeaned the dance of Africans on the slave ships those many years ago . A new embodiment developed in response to the gaze fostering strategies to save indigenous ways of knowing dance while acclimating to a new context. It was in this new context the merger of varied aesthetics; African, European and others instigated the mixture of dance practices that has influenced American dance to this day. Even as they were denigrated, Africanist aesthetics were excavated for elements and inspirations that met the aspirations of onlookers.

In the broadcast Thomas DeFrantz points out there is no singular experience and diversity is central in African American culture. African American identity has always been a hybrid of different African cultures and other cultures that surrounded it. From slavery times, diverse African peoples designed a sense of shared identity; where the mergers of multiple Africanist aesthetics found refuse and partnership. Participants chose and discarded ways of knowing dance as they saw fit. Hybridity was condoned in this exchange as a given and idiosyncratic performative act. Participants saw themselves despite the ever watching and evaluating gaze. This self styled freedom permitted also allowed onlookers the chance to imitate, to align and transform Africanist aesthetics in alternative ways. Dance making became the opportunity for dances of refusal, escapism and cathartic revival through possession or pantomime that alleviated the perils of estrangement. To this day the practice of African Americans has been a kaleidoscope of multiple dance expressions that extend from these early efforts. Judith Jamison enlightened listeners of the importance of acknowledging multiple possibilities in dance making especially for the dance practices of African Americans. Jamison’s candour encapsulated the global ness of all African American aesthetics, indeed the global ness of all dance art.

Brenda Dixon Gottschild spoke of the merger of Africanist aesthetics with the neoclassical work of George Balanchine. Balanchine’s work with Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham was no doubt an event for sharing embodied knowledge, where two explicit ways of knowing and making dance met head-on. Balanchine’s Apollo (1928), Agon (1957) and Jewels (1967) reveal his absorption of jazz, a form that finds its foundations in Africanist aesthetics. Baker and Dunham’s inclusion of Europeanist influences in their performance and choreographic work is also undeniable. Racism is Gottschild’s explanation for the dismissal of these influences in a context where African endeavour has been devalued. Although invisiblised, Africanist aesthetics have always been an important presence on the ballet stage. Gottschild points out there have always been recursive tensions between so-called “black” and “white” dance practices because people in close proximity share art practices whether they acknowledge it or not. Gottschild relates that even if racism precipitates the denial of this exchange, sharing occurs despite it. At the end of the broadcast Gottschild read Primus’ dancer’s credo. Primus writes of her travels through space and time to divergent worlds through dance and her means to transcend barriers that seek to contain or invisiblise people based on cultural and ethnic difference. For Primus, dance became a safe and separate world where freedom was forged.

Joan Peters spoke of her admiration of Dunham as a young woman at the Dunham School. Peters relates a life story of standing in the halls of the Dunham School that was located in Manhattan, New York during the late 1940’s and 50’s. As a young student she would wait to see what Dunham would be wearing for the day and a particular outfit complete with silk stockings, high heels, black turtle neck sweater and tight skirt was most memorable. This life long impression of Dunham as a woman of exceptional grace and creative energy has remained with Peters to complement her knowledge of Dunham as a woman who achieved phenomenal things. Jamison’s recollection of Primus was of a gorgeously full-bodied woman with an enormous jump. This feat and enduring presence will always be for Jamison a cherished memory of beauty and technical excellence. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar still recalls her first meeting with Primus who condoned the study of African dance but encouraged the research of African American dance. Zollar remembers Primus emphasising that any study of African American dance, which had its beginnings on the slave ships, would be filled with anger. Primus’ insightful observation gave Zollar renewed understandings of her African American identity.

Gaynell Sherrod spoke of Dunham’s initiation into the Vodun religion as practiced in Haiti. Dunham’s initiation was a means to embody and thereby understand the dance practices of this religion and gain the trust of its people. Dunham’s interaction with the people and participation in the rituals served as source material for making many of her dance works. DeFrantz recollects seeing The Ailey Company perform Dunham’s Shango (1946), a dance that finds sources in Vodun religious rites. His reminiscence of this extraordinary dance is one of a ritualistic event so believable the audience was left awestruck. Jamison describes with vivid expressions, yanvalou, an undulating, wave like ripple in the spine that radiates through the arms and head. Yanvalou is used in Alvin Ailey’s Wade in the Water section of Revelations (1960). Dunham embodied this movement while involved in the rituals of Vodun religion and it is used in Shango (1946). Jamison notes that this move can be noticed although more subtly in other African dance expressions but acknowledges Dunham’s research as a powerful source for this movement.

Robert Garland spoke descriptively about his inspirations and methods for individual ways of making dance. Founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and the late Karel Shook, Dance Theatre of Harlem repertory is comprised of neoclassical, classical and contemporary dance works. Karel Shook wrote that DTH: was about the aristocracy of man, the marriage of the incontestable nobility of the Watusi with the reified aristocracy of the Court of Louis XIV. This has been Garland’s inspiration for merging of dance expressions that spring from his embodied knowledge of classical ballet, jazz, West African and American modern dance forms. Speaking about the second movement of his work New Bach (2001), which uses Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Garland uses African based movement but believes audience members do not notice these sensibilities because the movement is as classical as the music. Understood from Shook’s writing and as Garland states, “grace and beauty are grace and beauty”.

British choreographer, Sheron Wray was the youngest of the choreographers interviewed. Wray discussed her choices from the multiplicity of dance influences, jazz, contemporary dance, hip hop and African dance expressions open to her. Wary described her understanding of ngomo, a Swahili expression for dance and sing, that has been the inspiration behind her use of improvisation in her dance making. With the music of Wynton Marsalis playing in the background, Wray explained her strategy for merging the specialities of dancers and musicians in her work Lucky for Some (2003) Wray’s dance making occurring at present in the British context has a similar resonance with the first Africans’ performance in the ring shout whose transformation of embodied knowledge enabled a renewed sense community and ritual. Wray’s dance making reveals new synthesised amalgamations in the circle affirming the continuance and diversification of Africanist aesthetics throughout the African Diaspora.

It was important that neither Primus nor Dunham be touted as representative of African American dance. Their reclamation of Africanist aesthetics and the insertion of that knowledge into their separate art practices were so different. Given this disparity, Dunham and Primus blazed a trail for reclaiming and valuing Africanist aesthetics. Dunham and Primus illustrate and as the interviewees proclaim, merging different dance cultures can result in strong new dance forms that cannot be labelled derivative of any one culture. Overall the programme sought to be memorable and informative as well as detailing the work of individual persons who have had substantial impact on developing dance worldwide.

Thea Nerissa Barnes, Independent Dance Researcher currently Resident Dance Supervisor of The Lion King in the West End, London, UK.

Transcripts of the broadcast are available upon request from:
Richard Bannerman c/o BBC Radio 3, Broadcasting House, London, W1A 1AA

1. Tonkin, E. (1992). Narrating our pasts The Social Construction of Oral History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Layson, J. (1983). Historical perspectives in the study of dance. In J. Adshead-Lansdale & J. Layson, (Ed.), Dance History An Introduction (pp. 3-17). London: Routledge.

3. Olney, J. (Ed.) (1980). Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical . Princeton: Princeton University Press.

4. Tonkins, 1992, 57

5. Stuckey, R. S. (2002). Christian Conversion and the Challenge of Dance. In T. F. DeFrantz (Eds.), Dancing Many Drums Excavations in African American Dance (pp. 39-58). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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