Dancing Against Segregation

Episodes remembered by Dr. Johann Buis about redemptive imagination through dance

Words: Dr. Johann Buis, Associate Professor of Music (Musicology), Coordinator Music History

Katherine Dunham, head-and-shoulders portrait facing front

Katherine Dunham

Phyllis Twachtman, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05791

My Visit with Katherine Dunham

One of my life’s most memorable moments involved a visit to Black dance pioneer Katherine Dunham’s home in East St. Louis. The dancer had decided to invest her retirement career in East St. Louis, Illinois, the majority Black city up the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. Building a community center, Dunham managed to enlist dance teachers who train children daily in Dunham technique dance training. East St. Louis, Illinois, the city where jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ father served as a dentist, is also the city where Dunham-trained Olympic triple gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee dreamed of becoming a dancer as she trained in Dunham’s dance school. During the summers, Dunham and her staff held regular summer institutes with dance teachers from across the world.

Resplendent in matching silk robe and headscarf, the bedridden grande dame radiated the poise and upright charisma as 17 Illinois high school teachers crammed around her bedside. This visit came at the end of a weeklong Illinois Humanities Council summer institute for high school teachers. When asked why she performed her ballet Southland overseas but never in the United States, Dunham revealed a shocking backstory.

Transcending Brutality through Creative Process

Representing the United States as goodwill ambassadors during 1950 in South American countries, she and her dance company astounded audiences night after night. Then she read that back home, white supremacist hatred resulted in the lynching of a Black man. How could the pioneer of Black lyric dance perform before a foreign audience with an all-Black American company of dancing artists, ignoring this savage act of racial hatred against the marginalized people she represented?

Premiered on December 9, 1950, at the Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Chile, Southland was performed with the acceptance of the U.S. Ambassador on that occasion and later in Europe, Dunham told us. She dared not perform it in the United States. Scholars documented that the State Department took umbrage to the unfavorable image of the United States portrayed to foreign audiences through Dunham’s ballet. On the occasion of visiting her, she told us: “I created a ballet to depict the lynching of a black man on the stage.” The dance artist was compelled to respond to the events of her time, moving the body in measured time.

I can only imagine her memories of touring while subjected to the many humiliations she and her dance company suffered during the 1940s as they traveled through the racially-segregated South during the Jim Crow era. On one occasion, Dunham and her dance company refused to perform in a theater when she discovered that Blacks were prohibited from buying tickets to watch the Dunham’s Black dance company perform. On another occasion, in Louisville, Kentucky, Dunham famously told the all-white audience in October 1944 that she would not return to Louisville, since “your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us.”

How would the Black anthropologist, dance pioneer, and social activist respond to news of a brutal lynching during 1950 in her home country, the U.S.A.? Confronted with this shocking, socially barbaric call of hatred, the dancer’s answer was to reply with an artwork.

Southland, the artist’s response to the lynching in the United States, addressed mob hatred, hanging a human being from a tree. Dunham exalted the ignominious death of the Black man at the hands of the white mob to the heights of a work of art. She attempted through the creative process to transcend the barbarism of the heinous deed. Her attempt might well have been an act of pain, but in her pain she was seeking redemption of our common humanity. In light of this work of art, one looks beyond the artwork to the Ultimate Redemptive act as expressed by the Apostle Peter in his address to the high priest and his council declaring: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30 ESV).

Alvin Ailey (who went on to found the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, a predominantly Black dance company based in New York City) studied with Dunham. Indeed, scholars agree that she set the trajectory for Black dance throughout the 20th century. To me, the most remarkable expression of dance to redeem a painful history is a single work by Dunham’s dance protegé, Ailey, titled Revelations (1960). This work succeeded best in elevating the dignity of both the dance and humanity, responding to yet another historical moment of pain in U.S. history: the enslavement moment. Choral arrangements of slave spirituals—the enslaved people’s musical reconfiguration of the gospel in the midst of enslavement’s painful reality—form the musical accompaniment to Revelations. Ailey’s website describes the suite of dances that constitute Revelations as follows:

Performer Alvin Ailey said that Revelations is “one of America’s richest treasures was the African-American cultural heritage— “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful.” This enduring classic is a tribute to that tradition, born out of the choreographer’s “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and the Baptist Church. But since its premiere in 1960, the ballet has been performed continuously around the globe, transcending barriers of faith and nationality, and appealing to universal emotions, making it the most widely seen modern dance work in the world.

An Impasse for the Arts in the Face of Segregation

My sister’s tragedy came to me in the form of a desperate trans-Atlantic phone call in 1990—she was in South Africa, and I was in the United States. “Johann, are you also encouraging me to stay and teach ballet to my students?” I could hear the voice of my recently graduated ballet dancer sister crack over the phone. She had come to an emotional dead-end. To this day I can still recall the breathless desperation in her voice. My sister’s tragedy could have been averted, had she known the story of Black dance in the U.S.A.—the stories of Dunham and Ailey. Unfortunately, racial segregation in apartheid South Africa saw ballet training (and by association modern dance) during the late 1980s devoid of any Black artistic contribution. Ballet training during the late 1980s in South Africa had no contextual acknowledgement of integrating European ballet with Afrocentric dance aesthetics (practiced for more than fifty years during the 1930s through the 1980s in the U.S.A.). The result of segregation in apartheid South Africa was that European performing arts survived unaffected by societal changes decades after colonialism and centuries after European settlement ended at the tip of Africa. States of Emergency reigned during the 1980s and into the early 1990s throughout the land, as the apartheid government had been using extreme force to quell political resistance. Armored vehicles patrolled the township streets day and night. Roadblocks and spontaneous protests could break out at any moment. In the midst of this turmoil, my sister received an impossible assignment: prove in one year that township-dwellers, deprived of a century of systematic ballet training, could accomplish heights of success overnight. (“Township” is the name given to the Black ghettos of impoverished segregated neighborhoods of mostly identical government rental properties in South Africa.)

On his death bed the former director of the University of Cape Town (UCT) Ballet School—a fair-skinned, mixed-race dance star, who himself could be reclassified “white” for the opportunity to be trained at UCT and later at Sadler’s Wells in London—implored my sister to bring ballet to the townships. Duty-bound, she accepted the challenge. Within a year, she found herself at the impasse that made her call me.

How could she alone—without an assistant, a mentor, or a pianist for accompanying barre exercises—mold the black bodies in Gugulethu Township near Cape Town, to accomplish what privileged white bodies had been molded into since kindergarten? How could she alone, conscience-bound, accede to the wishes of a dying man? Alone, during apartheid—the system of racial segregation enforced by law—now on life support in 1990, she had to resuscitate the dying political system by using the arts. She had to figuratively apply “heart paddles” to the convulsing apartheid system. She was responsible for securing the survival of ballet in apartheid South Africa by starting in the Black townships. Alone, she had to intervene in a crisis—generations in the making—of privileged ballet training.

Valuing Art in Different Aesthetic Frameworks

My sister’s township ballet career in apartheid South Africa came to an end soon after that futile phone call to me.

This personal crisis served as a metaphor for the crisis of dance teaching in apartheid South Africa, three decades after gaining independence from the British Crown (1961). For those three decades, the Royal Academy of Ballet certification in an African country served no Black African children. The miniscule number of mixed-race students qualifying as ballet teachers in South Africa learned about the white American dance pioneer Martha Graham and not the African-American dancer Katherine Dunham, who created her African diasporic dance technique starting in the 1930s; it was now the 1990s.

Had my sister learned of the Dunham technique—African dance built upon the foundation of ballet—rather than only the Graham technique, my sister’s dead-end would have been a thoroughfare instead.

I believe it was the lack of a sympathetic understanding of European and African cultural practices that caused the collapse of this short-lived South African township ballet teaching experience. A sympathetic understanding starts with the premise that all cultures place high value on their arts, attribute beauty to excellence in executing their arts, and have aesthetic frameworks within which each culture critiques its own arts. These aesthetic frameworks often coincide with evaluating identical criteria, but more often than not, their respective criteria are diametrically opposed from one culture to another.

For example, European-derived dances place high value on emphasizing (and even extending) the vertical plane, the Y-axis. African dances, by contrast, place high value on breaking the vertical plane, and emphasize the horizontal, X-axis, bending at the midriff. European-derived dances place high value on expressive footwork, while African-derived dances place less value on intricate footwork. Instead, African dance places great value upon the expressive torso (isolating the shoulders, the midriff, and the gluteus maximus). Ballet’s European aesthetic framework values peripheral expressivity that extends to the hands and the fingertips, incorporating mime. The African-derived dance aesthetic framework values the arms as expressive extensions of the torso. The value of repetition as a meditative practice is expressed in dance as circularity. African folk dance on the one end of the spectrum and hip-hop dance on the other end of the spectrum, are kinetic expressions of the musical gestures accompanying the dance.

Katherine Dunham incorporated European and African dance elements on a foundation of ballet training. As a university-trained anthropologist, she became the participant-observer in her intensive studies of dance in the Caribbean before the Second World War. Had the ballet teachers during apartheid South Africa incorporated an understanding of Dunham’s work, alongside that of Martha Graham (whom they taught), a richer experience of modern dance relevant to the African continent would have resulted.

“Ain’t Gonna Lay My ’ligion Down”

Dancing was forbidden in my home. My mother grew up a nominal Anglican in South Africa, but made a radical conversion at age 16 thanks to the preaching of the Plymouth Brethren in Cape Town in 1945. She held to the dictates of the Plymouth Brethren Assembly: no dancing, no card playing, no short hair, no makeup for women. My father, a faithful Lutheran, inherited his musical talent from his grandfather, a dance fiddler in his youth. This great-grandfather of mine, Paulus Buis (b. 1848), gave up his dance fiddling when he encountered a German missionary, Daniel Heese (1833-1905), during the final decades of the 19th century. It is very likely that Heese regarded playing the fiddle for dances as unbecoming of a new Christian convert. It is also likely that my great-grandfather could have subscribed to the traditional African notion that a musical instrument embodies its own “spirit.” Therefore, to my great-grandfather, dancing was undesirable on both counts, I would surmise.

The conversion of my great-grandfather resulted in him developing devotional practices for the rest of his life: morning and evening Bible reading, singing and prayer, and faithful church attendance, holding stubbornly loyal to Christ his savior.

His deep loyalty to Christ manifested itself in a dramatic event one evening. Family lore relates that as the children were gathered one night around the fire during their evening Bible reading, great-grandfather Paulus sent for his fiddle. Surprised, since he was not in the habit of accompanying the hymns on his fiddle, the children looked on with curiosity. Certainly, he would not break out in a dance tune that he had long ago abandoned. He took the instrument and tossed it into the fire.

In a final cry of anguished incineration, the instrument’s strings snapped with an agonizing twang and then fell silent. “Let this be a lesson to everyone present and those still to come,” the unspoken message suggested to all the onlookers, “that the spirit of this instrument of the devil is forever exorcised from this family!” The dramatic finality of turning his back on a life of dancing came down from generation to generation.

Years later, my sister—the youngest great-granddaughter of Paulus Buis—saw a performance of the ballet Coppélia by Delibes. She was mesmerized. The lifeless dolls in the toymaker’s shop came to life and held her spellbound as they danced on pointe in their tutus. From that moment, the little girl’s determination to pursue a dream of becoming a ballet dancer was set.

Two hurdles stood in my sister’s way. The first hurdle was my Plymouth Brethren mother who regarded all dancing as honoring Satan. The second hurdle was apartheid South Africa’s political unrest that reigned during the 1970s through 1990s. My mother acquiesced in spite of her ongoing verbal protestations, since she could not physically prevent my sister from going to ballet classes. But the political unrest did not relent.

All the dancers were white, since the practice of exclusive training in ballet remained operative for three hundred years after 17th century settlers from Europe severed their ancestral ties to Holland and France during the subsequent centuries. Ballet and classical music served as the exclusive “birthright” of those settler-descendants. The rule in 1972 apartheid South Africa: People of color were not trained in ballet.

The apartheid regime weaponized cultural differences to justify segregation: the so-called “Europeans” and “Non-whites” had their own distinctive cultures and discrete art forms. The “fine arts,” resplendent in silk shoes, orchestral music, and their expensive lessons, valorized sophistication, took years of training, and implied an origin in the courtly palaces of Europe. Africans inherited their own arts, their own dances and music-making performed in the sand and dust. This “benevolent” segregationist argument promoted the somnolence of racial and artistic privilege, identity, and financial investment, while ignoring the simple principle of equal access to the arts for all.

My sister did not flounder under her mother’s belief that dance was of the Devil, nor did my sister flounder under segregationist policies in 1990. Had her training exposed her to Dunham or Ailey who expanded ballet vocabulary to incorporate African aesthetics, she could have used her artistic gift imaginatively, transcending such evils and pain, to seek and promote redemption for herself and her students. When she shut the door to ballet teaching, God opened a different door for her; she turned to law and qualified as an advocate in the High Court of the new, non-segregationist country, around the time when Nelson Mandela became President of a non-racial South Africa.

In Spring 2020, during the 60th anniversary tour performance in Chicago of Ailey’s Revelations, a class of students from Wheaton’s Urban Studies Advanced Integrative Seminar titled, Engaging the Arts in the City, watched with stunned amazement. “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned,” the sorrow song of painful lament opens the suite of dances that constitute Revelations, sung in haunting hymn-like, four-part harmony. The dance corps moves gently into a terraced wall from lowest to highest figures ending in a sculpture of dancers bending at the knees in wide-stances, horizontally-outstretched upper arms, their forearms at right angles pointing downwards. Like a sculpture of rising winged storks, dancers hold the pose at the end of the musical phrase, and then on the next and final phrase the dancers bring their legs together, stretching their arms and fingers heavenward in a corporate appeal to God Almighty. At the end of each verse phrase all the hands suddenly jerk like a flower opening in random succession. “There’s trouble all over this world,” “Ain’t gonna lay my ‘ligion down,” “I been talked about, sure’s you born” are the final three phrases on which rapid jerking hand gestures surprise the audience with hope as the sound of each verse dies. Like Dunham a decade earlier (1950) in Southland and Ailey in 1960 in Revelations, the Black dance choreographer appeals neither to the brutality of enslavement, nor lynching, but to Almighty God, the righteous judge of all the earth.

Ultimately, Dunham and Ailey, as pioneers of Black dance in the U.S.A., made a way where there was no way. Building on the foundation of European ballet, the imagination of these dance creators added African structures and content under the canopy of Africa’s dance expressions. Perhaps the crisis of my sister—equipping Black students instantaneously with ballet in 1990 in apartheid townships at the tip of Africa—was her attempt at stretching out her arms and fingers heavenward, as Ailey’s dancers did in Revelations, not in a corporate appeal, but in a lonesome appeal to God Almighty.