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How Katherine Dunham and Susan Stroman Influenced the Jazz Dance Movement?

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Aleksa Radosavljevic

Jazz Dance?

Wednesday, 14th February

Mrs.

How Katherine Dunham and Susan Stroman influenced the Jazz Dance movement?

        Throughout the course of human history, dance has been a part of cultures around the world. The style of dance and its purpose varies from culture to culture, but dance remains a universal language. Although many types of dance are existing, this essay will primarily focus on Jazz dance. In fact, as explained by the website, Dance Connection Rochester, “Jazz danced originated from the African American vernacular dance of the late 1800s to the mid-1900s”. At the time, the early popular jazz dancer was Joe Frisco in the 1910s. (Dance Connection Rochester). Throughout years, jazz dance evolved and is nowadays present in “many different venues and different forms”. People can enjoy jazz dance in schools, dance schools, and TV shows. It is a significant type of dance, which allows choreographs to mix with other dance styles, allowing the choreographies to reach people easier while being richer in term of technique. This essay will analyze and compare two renowned masters of Jazz Dance, who have influenced, and who are still inspiring the jazz dance movement. I have decided to write my essay on Susan Stroman and Katherine Dunham, and throughout the essay we will go over their background, training, careers, but also choreographic styles.         

First, as explained by the “choreograph closet”, Susan Stroman was born in Wilmington Delaware. With a father pianist, Susan Stroman was exposed to music at a young age. According to pbs.org, Susan Stroman acted in “community theater in her hometown of Wilmington”, and began taking dance classes and training in jazz, tap and ballet when she was just five years old, and then extended her studies in dance at the Academy of Dance in her hometown. Her passion kept growing over the years, and after graduating from the University of Delaware with a theater major, she decided to move to New York to pursue her passion for dance (the choreograph closet). There, Susan Stroman toured ‘in the original productions of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago”, and the revue “Sugar Babies”” (pbs.org). Through these moments where she started to be involved in Broadway shows as a dancer, Susan Stroman loved and enjoyed the stage. After several chorographic collaborations, she finally won her first Tony award for
“Crazy on you” choreography (pbs.org). All along her careers, Susan Stroman earned 12 Tony Awards, including those for direction and choreography (pbs.org). Indeed, as explained by “the choreograph closet” website, she choreographed “dozens of sellout shows, on and off Broadways”. Susan Stroman was famous and renowned in her Broadway work, with 21 stage productions recorded, her biggest success were
“Crazy For You”, “Show Boat”, and “Oklahoma!” (The choreograph closet). Also, she won critical acclaim for choreographing and directing two productions, “Contact” and “The Producers”. More precisely, “Contact” was a musical that explored new ways of putting on theatre with little singing and instead consisted of three short stories told mostly through dance. With the comedy “The Producers”, Stroman won Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Director as well as two Drama Desk Awards. Stroman also choreographed for the New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham Company, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet.  Stroman proved that her talent was not limited to theatre, when she turned “The Producers” into a film and choreographed and directed the classic dance movie, “Center Stage”, which is full of elaborate and dynamic dance routines and choreography. Stroman received the American Choreography Award for her modern work in this film.

As can be seen on many YouTube videos, most of Susan Stroman’s Broadway musical choreography is thematic. There is a clear link between the singing and the dancing. As explained in the choreograph closet, a lot of Susan Stroman choreographic works are exaggerated, following the heritage of Broadway musicals. She used her creativity, and her desire to be on the other side of the table to become the first female choreographer and director of Broadway. As mentioned in pbs.org, Stroman’s works reflects her ability to be a true “storyteller”.  She once said that she feels her role is “to make it believable when someone launches into song and dance” and to “propel the plot forwards” (the choreograph closet).

We will now focus this second part of the essay on another jazz master, Katherine Dunham. She was born on June 2, 1909 in Chicago to an African American father and a French Canadian mother. At her young age, Katherine Dunham never thought about a career in dance, she instead ‘consented to her family’s wish that she become a teacher and followed her brother, Albert Dunham Jr. to the University of Chicago, where she became one of the first African American women to attend this University and earned bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology’ (Katherine Dunham Biography). Throughout this time, she spent more than two years in the Caribbean studying all aspects of dance and the motivations behind dance. In fact, this heritage helped her to revolutionized American dance in the 30’s by going to the roots of black dance (Katherine Dunham Biography). While Susan Stroman was more a thematic choreographer, Katherine Dunham was the pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography, elements of ballet and modern dance, and she is one of the founders of the anthropological dance movements. She was renowned for bringing these African influences to a European-dominated dance world. In fact, when she returned to the United States, she created the Dunham Technique that transformed the world of dance (Katherine Dunham Biography).  

Rich from her talent and experience, Katherine Dunham opened in 1945 the Dunham School where famous artists such as Marlon Brando, and James Dean took classes (Katherine Dunham Biography).   According to the dance heritage website, her company toured the United States, from the 1940s to the 1960s, in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Australia, introducing global audiences to her creative interpretation of African culture. Always committed to education and activism, she did not rest when the company finished touring in the early 1960s. Instead, she founded the Performing Arts Training Center and spent much of the next forty years of her life dedicated to the youth of that city (Dance heritage). As can be seen on the YouTube video below, we can see that Katherine Dunham knowledge of body was phenomenal, and impressive. As explained in an article from the Library of Congress, Katherine Dunham choreography and performing company were extremely well received in New York. “Her success led to more diverse opportunities, including Broadway performances, feature films, choreography, and national and international tours presented by Sol Hurok” ( Katherine Dunham: A life in Dance). She was considered a living, and breathing institution in the dance world.  In fact, the website “Dance heritage” enumerated all her awards, honors, and distinctions as follow:

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