Teaching with Dunham's Data

In 2019, Takiyah Nur Amin designed a teaching toolkit for a one-week module on Katherine Dunham. In support of Takiyah’s lesson, we put together a small pdf package of letters and other primary source documents that students can treat like a scavenger hunt to figure out where Dunham was traveling and when. This reproduces in a digestible form what we call “playing history detective” – when we are going through archival materials and confront conflicting information when putting together our datasets. The toolkit includes primary and secondary readings and other resources appropriate for an advanced high school or early undergraduate level that would support any of the prompts below.

In connection with the National Dance Education Organization webinar “Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Katherine Dunham” (Feb. 7, 2023), we came up with some more assignment prompts around Dunham’s Data that educators can incorporate into their classes. Whereas Takiyah’s toolkit was focused on historical documents, the following suggestions are organized in relation to specific visualizations, and can be used to support a lesson about Katherine Dunham herself, or to represent Dunham while also teaching skills of historical research or data literacy. 

Working with the Interactive Chord Diagram of Katherine Dunham’s Dancers, Drummers, and Singers, 1947-60 

This chord diagram makes it possible to examine the connections among the dancers, drummers, and singers in Dunham’s employ between 1947 and 1960. This gives a sense for the transmission of embodied knowledge across hundreds of performers. Many of these performers went on to become noted choreographers, recording artists, teachers–and celebrities!–in their own right. Have students interact with the chord diagram to familiarize themselves with the names of performers. 

Assign some of the performers’ names to students for further research. Can they find images of the performers? What did they do after their time with Dunham’s company? For example, did they become dance teachers and if so who did they teach? Perform in Broadway shows, dance for  movies, or record musical albums? What kind of ripple effects become visible when students combine their research to look across multiple performers’ careers simultaneously? More advanced assignments could include contributing to a Wikipedia page or creating a research paper around one of the many dancers, drummers, or singers who got their start with Katherine Dunham.

Working with the Interactive Inspiration Map for Katherine Dunham’s Repertory

This map shows the sites Katherine Dunham identified as places of inspiration for her choreography from 1937 to 1962, together with quotations from Dunham’s program notes that show the connections that she made between pieces and places. 

Allow students to explore the map interface and read the quotations from Dunham’s programs in the lower right, to notice where her choreographic inspiration seems to focus and also the many different ways Dunham describes being inspired by experience and research in her dance-making. Have them also open the stacked bar chart in the bottom left corner of the screen to see how the geographic distribution of Dunham’s inspiration changed from year to year. 

Discussions might involve general conversations about how place and choreography are connected, or reflect more specifically on how Dunham’s inspirations both come from connections to the African diaspora and extend into other spaces as well. How are students also inspired by the places they are from, the places they have visited, and the places they imagine in their own creative work? How do they navigate inspiration versus cultural appropriation, and how do they think Dunham navigated this dynamic? How are Dunham’s representations of places and cultures similar to or different from other Modern-era choreographers? Such a conversation could be enriched by Dr. Halifu Osumare’s short lecture “Meditation on Memory in African Diasporic Dance and Its Transmission in the Touring Katherine Dunham Dance Company.”

Working with the Interactive Network of Dunham Company Repertory: Shows, Containers, Pieces, and Dances-in-Dances

Over her career, Katherine Dunham actively repurposed and recombined elements of her choreography. Organized into the nested relationships of shows, containers, pieces, and dances-in-dances, this network visualization based on Dunham’s programs makes it possible to examine the many interconnections among Dunham’s repertory. Have students interact with the network graph by hovering over different nodes to figure out most and least connected pieces, as well as the most and least performed. Students may also want to compare this graph to the diagrammed program sample to consider how historical materials can become data.

Given that Dunham’s most-performed or most-connected pieces are not necessarily the ones critics and scholars have paid the most attention to, have a discussion about what our criteria or expectations are for a piece to be considered “canonical.” Students might also want to discuss how approaching a choreographer’s body of work as intersecting components, self-citations, and remixing may or may not apply to other choreographers’ practices with which they are familiar. 

Working with Katherine Dunham’s Global Travel, 1947-60 (Interactive Space-Time Mapping)

This globe offers a spatialized rendering of Katherine Dunham’s travels from 1947-1960 that keeps all of her trips in sequence. The locations Dunham visited and those to which she continuously returned form a 3D architecture of her experience.Allow students to explore by zooming in, zooming out, and rotating the globe, as well as hovering over the gray poles and yellow-red arcs that represent individual cities and trips. 

Ask students which parts of the world Katherine Dunham seemed to visit the most? Which parts of the world are less represented? Are there any surprises? How does knowing where Dunham spent her time during this period offer a way into thinking about her influence, the Civil Rights Era in the U.S., or transnational connections made by leading Black artists and intellectuals in the 20th century?  What do students think it might have felt like to travel as extensively as Dunham did? What challenges do they think she might have faced as an African American woman? Dr. Halifu Osumare’s short lecture “Katherine Dunham as an African American Choreographer in the Pre-Civil Rights Colonial Era” could productively add to this conversation.

To get students on their feet, have them consider how they might transform the structure of Dunham’s travels criss-crossing the world, or any of the other visualizations, into a performance score to structure their own pathways through space?

If you try any of these ideas or come up with other ones, we’d love to hear about it!!