In Memoriam: Joan Peters, Upholder of the Katherine Dunham Technique (May 16, 1939–November 9, 2022).
January 27, 2023

Joan Peters, chairperson for Dunham Technique at The Ailey School for 44 years, died of congestive heart failure at the Mount Sinai Morningside hospital in New York City on Wednesday, November 9, 2022.

Peters, a dancer, teacher and choreographer, was one of three people recognized by Katherine Dunham and The Dunham Institute as a Dunham Certified instructor and master teacher.

Born and raised in New York City, Peters was introduced to dance by her mother, Mimi, who worked as a student registrant at Syvilla Fort’s company, The Phillips-Fort Studio of Theatre Dance. Peters began taking classes with the company when she was 5 and started teaching at 11, when she began using her famous carved wooden staff to tap on the floor to keep multiple drummers on the beat.

Peters also spent her childhood years studying with Dunham, who, as an anthropologist and dancer, studied ballet and Afro-Caribbean dances to create a style which emphasized isolation and polyrhythmic movement. “Her classes were so hard! Even though we were just children, she expected the best and never went easy on us. That made us feel like we needed to try even harder. Our bodies became so strong that there was nothing you could do to hold us down,” Peters said in a Dance Magazine Teacher’s Wisdom column I interviewed her for in 2007.

Peters then went on to study Graham technique, tap, ballet, Cuban dance, Haitian dance and acrobatics. She was a principal dancer for numerous companies, including Fort’s, the Talley Beatty Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and toured nationally, as well. Additionally, Peters danced in numerous films, concerts and Broadway and off-Broadway productions, such as Show Boat and Kwamina.

Many other renowned dancers influenced Peters as an educator. Apart from Dunham and Fort (who was also a dancer in Dunham’s company before she started her own), there was Dr. Glory Van Scott, who met Peters when they were both children at Fort’s dance school. Together, they went on to perform with several of the same companies. Van Scott says she and Peters were like sisters, and when Peters became ill Van Scott visited her and relived the old times with lots of laughter. Peters was also the senior Syvilla Fort’s protégée, working with Fort in such a way that when she got sick and died, Van Scott says, “Joanie picked up the work and started the Joan Peters Dance Company so that those works from Syvilla would not be lost.”  

Then, in 1978, Peters, a disciple of Dunham technique, started teaching the form at The Ailey School. The Dunham technique is required for independent-study and certificate students at The Ailey School. Sylvia Waters, former company member of Ailey and artistic director of Ailey II for 38 years, credits Peters for being an amazing dancer and teacher. “She was very disciplined. The bar was very high. She expected a lot. She was really a disciplinarian. [Peters’ class] wasn’t for the faint of heart. But she was very warm, very patient, very encouraging to her students. She was a force.”

Peters also taught with numerous schools and programs, in particular Ailey’s former New Visions Dance Project for the blind and visually impaired. Wendy Amos, selected by Ailey himself to be the program’s coordinator and core teacher, believed the Dunham technique strengthened the students’ mobility, coordination, proprioception, balance, confidence and independence both in school and at home when doing daily activities, which was empowering for them. Because the students couldn’t see how Peters wanted them to dance, she had to explain what she wanted them to do differently. She would ask the students if she could touch them and, when they agreed, guide their bodies with her hands to show them what she wanted. “Joan’s character was so soft-spoken, so quiet, reassuring, motherly, kind, sweet and respectful. She never ever made anyone feel that things were impossible. She introduced her movements and she didn’t water anything down [even though] the explanations had to be more specific.”

Peters also taught thousands of other adult students at the Ailey Extension program. That’s when I first met her. I needed to take a two-credit Dunham (Afro-Caribbean) class to finish my bachelor’s degree at Fordham University. Since I’m Jamaican and love to dance, I thought it would be an easy two-credit class, but it was the hardest two-credit class ever!

Joan Peters (center) with her students. Photo by Brian Alejandro, courtesy Aitcheson.

More importantly, though, the class transformed my body. When I was 14, I underwent scoliosis surgery. Within six months after taking Ms. Peters’ class, I felt my body had become a lot stronger, and I found the confidence to stop wearing oversized clothes to hide my spine curvature.

During the Covid lockdowns, two of her favorite students from those classes started an informal Saturday Zoom session. We still tell stories of our time together in Ms. Peters’ class and recite her favorite phrase, “Hold, hold it, hold it,” which she said a million times to cement it in our brains to keep trying harder.

To me, the loss of Ms. Peters leaves a huge void in the history of African American dance. She transferred her experiences with Dunham, Fort, Ailey, Beatty and others to countless professional dancers who have graced some of the most well-known stages in America. As Waters put it, “[Peters] was one of the last direct descendants of that line of dancers and teachers. I think it’s a huge loss and I hope there’s someone to pass this on.”

There are other teachers of Dunham technique in the country, but for me there is no one like Ms. Peters. I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to study this artform with her. Thank you, Ms. Peters.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Sign up for any or all of these newsletters

You have Successfully Subscribed!