Dunham burst on the scene at a unique point in America's social,
political, and cultural history, in the wake of the cultural activity
that had been devoted to the search for the New Negro and at a time
just before the civil rights explosion. This era was a cauldron
of ideas, with international resonance found in the emerging Negritude
movement, which had coincided with the Harlem Renaissance. The movement
would articulate challenging concepts of African-American identity
and rock the foundations of America. Dance historian and critic
Sally Banes noted, in DANCING WOMEN: FEMALE BODIES ON STAGE: "Searching
for 'an authentic' African American dance that had not been either
cheapened by minstrel show parody or 'whitened' through a segregated
but syncretic American culture, she had found sources outside the
United States that she felt would better capture the movement history
of African Americans." Dunham's search had a unique dimension, because
traditional European anthropologists exploring Third World cultures
were obvious outsiders. The fact that Dunham was both an African
American and a dancer, which in part presaged the subsequent increased
presence of Third World anthropologists in the field, allowed her
to become a more integrated part of the societies she was studying.
The complexity and difficulty of her mission were evident from the early days of her career as a young anthropology student under Melville Hersksovits at the University of Chicago. She juggled ballet classes with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill, debuted in 1933 with the Chicago Opera in Ruth Page's "La Guiablesse," and started her own company and school, the short-lived Ballet Negre She flexed her muscles as the dance director for the Negro Unit of the Chicago branch of the Federal Theatre Project shortly after returning from her fruitful field trips to the Caribbean. In "Free To Dance," former Dunham dancer and teacher Ruth Beckford recalls the legend of Dunham's taking off her "nice suit," worn over a dance outfit, to do a spontaneous audition before the Rosenwald Foundation board when applying for the $2,000 or so that would finance her research.
In 1937, her company appeared on the historic Negro Dance Evening at New York's YMHA, which led to her premiere of "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot" at Broadway's Windsor Theatre on February 18, 1940, in a one-night stand that turned into an three-month run. It launched a career that would include numerous Broadway performances, countless tours abroad, and appearances in Hollywood films such as STORMY WEATHER and CABIN IN THE SKY. But it also would mean continuously educating not only her dancers but the public as well.
The creation of the Dunham Technique -- the development, in 1945, of a school where dancers learned anthropology, philosophy, sociology, and languages as well as tap, ballet, folk, and primitive dance percussion, eukinetics, and body training for actors -- hints at the scope of Dunham's mission as she saw it. Its impact was profound and influenced many performers who would go on to make their mark in dance and other arts -- Vanoye Aikens, Talley Beatty, Ruth Beckford, Marlon Brando, Hope Clarke, Janet Collins, Jean-Leon Destine, Lucille Ellis, Syvilla Fort, Peter Gennaro, Rudi Gernreich, Carlton Johnson, Eartha Kitt, Claude Merchant, Lenwood Morris, Pearl Reynolds, Jaime Rogers, and Lavinia Williams.
The mission was not easy when many in the audience, like NEW YORK TIMES dance critic John Martin, while unmistakable fans, insisted on viewing Dunham's work through a lens that distorted even as it applauded. While declaring in a 1940 review of "Tropics and Le Jazz Hot" that Dunham's "arrival on the scene" made "the prospects for the development of a substantial Negro dance art begin to look decidedly bright," Martin, with his limited vision, decreed what that dance art should be. "The essence of the Negro dance itself" would conform to his concept of the "Negro noble savage": "There is nothing pretentious about it: it is not designed to delve into philosophy or psychology but to externalize the impulses of a high-spirited, rhythmic and gracious race." Martin recognized that Dunham's work was "tremendous, anthropological and 'important'," but assured his audiences that "it is also debonair and delightful, not to say daring and erotic." While times were changing, Dunham, like Primus, was ahead of the curve. Sometimes these pioneers would have to patiently prepare their critics and admirers so they could catch up.
On October 4, 1944, when Pearl Primus performed "Strange Fruit" at the Belasco Theatre, there was no music and no company of dancers surrounding her, providing a visual backdrop for her remarkable presence -- nothing but an expanse of stage and the sound of a man's voice reading Lewis Allen's poem about the brutality of a lynching. Horrified and grief-stricken, Primus, her body scooped like a giant question mark, reached out and up toward some unseen vision. Trying to grasp the ungraspable, she dropped to the ground and rolled from side to side, writhing in pain as if wracked by a nightmare. Primus' powerful social protest piece was unlike any dance that had ever been created, but it was not the only one of its kind. With "Strange Fruit," "Hard Time Blues," "Slave Market," "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and other "dances of protest," Primus expanded the emotional range for African-American dancers by introducing American audiences to the passion and power of righteous indignation.
Her strength as a performer prompted NEW YORK TIMES critic John Martin to number her "among the best young dancers of the day, regardless of race."
Primus burst on the scene with a debut at the YMHA's Audition Winners' Concert in February 1943, a performance that led to a long engagement at a unique venue, New York's Café Society Downtown, then to the Belasco season and an invitation to perform with the Chicago Opera Company in Ruth Page's production of "Emperor Jones." Like Dunham, Primus was an anthropologist, researching her roots.