Othella Dallas, one of the last living early members of the Katherine Dunham Company, passed away from lung cancer on November 28 at a nursing home outside of Basel, Switzerland. She was 95. A celebrated dancer, teacher, and jazz and blues musician, Dallas’ studio in Basel is considered to be the only school in Europe to teach pure Dunham technique. Dallas continued performing and teaching well into her 90s; until the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, she was leading classes three days a week.
Dallas, née Othella Talmadge Strozier, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 26, 1925. Dallas was drawn to dance from a young age. Her grandmother ran a music school, and her mother, a seamstress, worked as a vaudeville singer on the side. Dallas first met Katherine Dunham, the great matriarch of Black dance, in the 1930s while studying ballet as a high schooler in St. Louis. They were drawn to each other, and at 19, Dallas accepted Dunham’s invitation to study at her school in New York City.
Dallas danced with the Katherine Dunham Company, America’s first self-supporting Black modern dance troupe, throughout the 1940s, touring internationally and performing in Dunham’s 1946 Broadway revue, Bal Nègre. In 1949, Dallas met the Swiss engineer Peter Wydler while on tour in Paris. According to The New York Times, Dunham was initially livid when she found out about Dallas and Wydler’s plans to marry, but eventually came around, and even served as a witness at their wedding. Later that year, Dallas left the company to stay in Switzerland with her new husband, and turned to teaching in Zurich.
In the 1950s, Dallas changed gears to pursue a career in music. It was during this time that she changed her name at the request of her manager, who thought that “Dallas” would look better on a marquee. As a musician, Dallas traveled back and forth between Europe and the U.S., sharing the stage with legends including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Sammy Davis Jr. She put out some seven albums between 1981 and 2018, as well as a handful of singles. Her final album, I Live the Life I Love, led to a 2019 Swiss Jazz Award. Publicity surrounding her win called her “the Grand Old Lady del Jazz, del Blues and Funk,” and touted her as “one of the most charismatic personalities in Switzerland’s show and music scene.”
In 1975, Dallas, her husband and their son settled in Binningen, a small town just outside of Basel. Dallas opened a dance school in the city devoted to Dunham technique. After Dunham passed away in 2006, Dallas rededicated her life to sharing the legacy of her beloved mentor, bringing Dunham’s polyrhythmic, Caribbean-rooted style to dancers of all ages. While Dunham technique classes are available at select schools across the U.S., namely the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and The Ailey School, Dallas was on her own in Europe.
According to a 2019 New York Times profile on Dallas, she traveled regularly around the continent giving master classes and workshops. “She was aware she was pretty much the only one from her time still being able to teach,” her son, Peter Wydler, told the New York Times earlier this month. “It was important for her to keep it pure.”
Dallas was endlessly vivacious, easily spotted around Basel in her chunky jewelry and colorful headwraps. A 2015 YouTube profile shows her at age 90, wearing a black tank top and sparkly knit hat, tap dancing alone in the studio, teaching a class of middle-aged women, and drumming vigorously. “Dunham technique is not about how high you can lift your leg around your neck,” she says in the video. “I don’t care if you can do that, but it’s got to come from the soul. Dunham is about people and their lives, that’s what Dunham technique is.” When journalist Sulamith Ehrensperger asks her if she ever gets tired, Dallas replies in the video, “I don’t get tired because that dance gives me my life.” She continues, laughing joyously: “I want it all, I want to do it all. Until I’m six foot under. I want to just go for it, killing myself going for it. I love it.”