January Member Spotlight: Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities

Left: The Katherine Dunham Museum. Photo provided by KDCAH. Right: Katherine Dunham and student at Southern Illinois University, c.1960s. Photo provided by Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Morris Library Special Collections Research Center.

New Alliance Member Organization the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities (KDCAH) in East St. Louis is a nonprofit multi-disciplinary arts organization that exists to promote and preserve the legacy of dance legend and social activist Katherine Dunham. Born in Chicago and raised in Joliet, Dunham’s groundbreaking career took her around the world before she settled in East St. Louis in 1964, later establishing the Dunham Centers to manage her various initiatives.

“She was a renaissance dancer and choreographer that changed the landscape of dance,” says KDCAH President Leverne Backstrom. “She was one of the first black women to own her own dance company, which traveled around the world.”

Among its programs, the Dunham Centers operate a community-based arts education program, an annual two-week seminar for aspiring dancers, and the Katherine Dunham Museum, East St. Louis’ only cultural center. The latter houses collections of African and Caribbean folk and contemporary art, as well as hundreds of Dunham’s personal items and materials. 

Dunham’s legacy also lives on through the practice of the Dunham Technique, a style of movement based in the traditions of African dance. KDCAH continues to offer classes and workshops in Dunham Technique led by Dunham Master Instructor Ruby Streate, who was taught by the dancing great herself.

“We have the 36th Annual Dunham Technique Seminar coming up at Washington University - St. Louis on July 25 - August 2,” notes Backstrom. “We’ll be offering beginning, intermediate, and advanced classes in Dunham Technique, as well as lectures on Ms. Dunham and her legacy. We’re encouraging students interested in dance from across the country to attend.”

KDCAH is one of many cultural treasures found in East St. Louis, an area that has been impacted by decreasing population in recent years. Organizations like KDCAH, the House of Miles East St. Louis, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center, and the Sunshine Cultural Arts Center, among others, showcase the area’s rich cultural legacy.

“There’s some great organizations coming out of East St. Louis,” concludes Backstrom. “We’ve got some good stuff going on here.”

To learn more, visit kdcah.org.