Though she studied dance as a child, Katherine Dunham (1910- ) never thought about becoming a professional dancer.
She majored in anthropology at the University of Chicago and, before graduating, received a fellowship to study the Moors, a group of people on the island of Jamaica. She lived with them and became passionately interested in the rituals of their culture.
Dunham went on to study the movements and symbolism of various African rituals and combined them with ballet and other dance styles, creating a fresh brand of modern dance.
She founded her own company, appeared in films, and became the first African American choreographer for the Metropolitan Opera, with Aida.
Eventually, Dunham rode her stardom into politics. In 1963, Dunham became an advisor to the cultural ministry of Senegal, and then returned to the United States to work with inner-city youths in St. Louis in 1967.
She then formed a school in Manhattan, where famous artists such as Marlon Brando and Eartha Kitt praised her liberating techniques.