How I teach Dunham
Rachel Tavernier and Dianna Anderson
No list of American modern dance pioneers is complete without Katherine Dunham. Her work in the 1930s and ’40s paved the way for choreographers including Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty. Fusing the polyrhythmic movement of African cultures, the rituals and spirituality of the West Indies and the European ideals of ballet, Dunham forged a new, dynamic style of modern dance. And her influence also spans the jazz realm: Choreographer Peter Gennaro studied with Dunham, and the isolations found in classic jazz classes come from her pedagogy.
Strengthening the core and emphasizing the versatility of the torso, the Dunham Technique also increases a dancer’s musical awareness and performance quality. Studying this method “opens a door on the world,” says Dunham master instructor Rachel Tavernier. Because Dunham was an anthropologist, Tavernier says, “students learn the rhythms of Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and African dance—it has it all.”
Tavernier, who also teaches ballet, says Dunham Technique has had a profound impact on her teaching style, and it can enrich every student’s artistry. “It isn’t only about dance—it’s spiritual. It teaches you about life and becoming a better human.”
Although some of Dunham’s choreography was influenced by the vodoun culture of the West Indies, it’s not a religious spirituality that Tavernier speaks of. “When you start the class, we gather in the middle of the floor. We talk about the spiritual focus for the class—what do the students want to accomplish or find out. There has to be a reason behind each movement, other than to have a good workout and sweat,” she says. “Form and function—that’s one of Dunham’s philosophies.” For example, women balancing heavy baskets on their heads and adjusting their necks to keep the contents safe inspired the head isolations in Dunham’s classes.
The pedagogy has evolved over time to be less harsh on a dancer’s limbs and more anatomically friendly, says Tavernier. Dunham had different periods of her technique: “You can take a class that’s lyrical with very elongated lines. Or, when she studied Eastern philosophy, she used sharp and angular movement. And there was a period that was very African-based—sharp, short and full of jumps.” Depending on the instructor, students may experience different qualities, but classes are characteristically intense and energetic.
Tavernier’s classes have a classical flow, starting with breathing exercises and then a warm-up geared to stretch and train the body incrementally, building up to more advanced combinations with traveling steps across the floor. Isolations are key, as are back undulations, contractions and exercises to strengthen a dancer’s legs. “Most of Dunham’s moves are done in plié,” says Tavernier. “You have to be strong in your legs.” DT
Here, Tavernier and student Dianna Anderson demonstrate a barre exercise that both stretches and strengthens the hamstrings and spine, and prepares dancers for more intense contractions and undulations. While this sequence is central to basic Dunham Technique, it can easily be transposed into a modern or contemporary class warm-up, since it activates the core and back muscles and challenges students’ balance.
Born and raised in Haiti, Rachel Tavernier studied ballet and received a scholarship to study in Germany at John Cranko’s academy. She met Katherine Dunham in 1982 during a dance conference organized by the American Embassy in Haiti. Dunham was searching for a dancer to play her in an upcoming movie, and Tavernier was invited to study with Dunham at her school in East St. Louis. Though the movie was never made, Tavernier spent every summer with Dunham, traveling back and forth between the United States and Haiti, where she was director of a ballet school. As one of the Dunham Technique’s master instructors, she has demonstrated for or taught master classes in Haiti, Cuba, Uruguay, Paris, Philadelphia, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and New York City. She is on faculty of the annual Dunham Seminar in East St. Louis, and she trains teachers to be certified instructors. In 2004, Tavernier helped make The Katherine Dunham Technique DVD, a two-disc instructional teaching tool created in conjunction with the Library of Congress. She is currently the ballet director at Chorus Line Dance Studios in Long Island.
A New Jersey native, Dianna Anderson is a second-year MFA candidate at New York University.
Photo by Matthew Murphy