Dunham's Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Central Sch of Speech and Drama
Department Name: Administration


Dunham's Data pioneers the use of data analysis in dance history through a project that centres around the case study of Katherine Dunham (1909-2006). The African American choreographer, anthropologist, teacher, curator, and author had a profound influence on dance internationally. As a choreographer and performer, she was involved with Broadway shows, operas, revues, Hollywood films, and modern concert dance. As a cultural operator she worked for and with groups ranging from important African American organizations to the United States Army, and she was also employed by both the writing and theatre arms of the Works Progress Administration. As a scholar, she contributed to the development of participant-observer ethnographic methods, and her work also anticipates the contemporary phenomenon of practice-based research. Her curatorial and administrative work ranges from curating festivals in Dakar, to building multiple cultural institutions, namely the Dunham School in New York and the Katherine Dunham Museum and Children's Workshop in St. Louis.

Dunham is an exemplary figure for analysing the ways dance moves across both geographical locations and networks of cultural, artistic, and financial capital. In addition to working across many diverse contexts, she spent over one third of her life on tour. The scale and distribution of datapoints necessary to research the transnational circulation of an artist like Dunham pose a challenge for traditional scholarly approaches. Thus, tracing such global movement requires new scholarly tools. For this project, we construct digital maps that track Dunham's travel undertaken as a touring artist as well as the ways in which her works represented place. We graph the networks Dunham built across people and institutions as she conducted ethnographic research, choreographed dances, created a dance technique, and participated in social justice movements. Using such digital research methods and data visualization in the context of dance history can catalyse a better understanding of how dance movements are shared and circulated among people and continents, and the networks of support and influence that undergird artistic and economic success. In so doing we ultimately ask how dance moves between places, and how the world is imagined in dance.

At the same time as we investigate the mobility of this particular historical figure, we also address the scholarly concerns that make collecting, analysing, and visualizing data meaningful for dance historical inquiry. Digital methods have altered the landscape of most humanities and arts disciplines. However, the field of dance studies has not yet realized how it can benefit from these analytic approaches, in particular for historical work, and what it can contribute to interdisciplinary conversations. Therefore, this project is not only devoted to the specific line of research regarding Dunham, but also to the original problems and questions of dance history that can be advanced through an innovative critical mixed methods approach that includes geographical mapping and network analysis.

The project scope is extended through knowledge exchange collaborations with international academic partner projects, as well as through UK industry partnerships with the Victoria & Albert Museum and One Dance UK's Dance of the African Diaspora.

Planned Impact

A major impact of this research is to contextualize the life and work of an important African American female figure and make her particular transnational story available for public consumption in the current age of ethnonationalism. The research capitalises on Dunham's existing position as a figure of public interest to present new ways of interpreting and analysing Dunham's mobility as well as other black transdisciplinary histories. Through the public Dunham|Data|Dance website and public events, the project incorporates and shares local and non-academic knowledges in ways that will be accessible and engaging for multiple stakeholders, including user groups beyond the academy. Beneficiaries will include those tied to the legacies of African diasporic cultural production (music, theatre, dance, literature), particularly general publics outside of the US who otherwise have limited physical and intellectual access to these materials.

In addition to a general audience, this project will benefit a more specific public, namely the global community that has arisen around Dunham through the legacy of her technique and community engagement, including the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities which act as an umbrella for many Dunham legacy organizations, including regular technique 'seminars' and symposia. Many of the expert users that we commission will be drawn from Dunham dancers and other artists deeply versed in the Africanist aesthetics and inheritances that this work makes available. This includes members of the One Dance UK's Dance of the African Diaspora, which is a project partner. The digital visualizations will serve as a prompt for recollection, benefitting this community by offering a catalyst and site to archive their own stories. By beta-testing with multiple stakeholders, we will develop collaborative forms of interpretation that benefits this community by increasing their shared knowledge base and ultimately deepening their understanding of Dunham.

Another area of impact is archives with holdings on Dunham, including Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the Library of Congress, Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and University of Arkansas Libraries at Fayetteville. Sharing detailed metadata for individual archival documents spread across these archives will transform the current generic finding aids by increasing their granularity and searchability and thus increasing their usability. Created in dialogue with the archivists, our development of granular archival metadata will add value to the archives by increasing collections knowledge for the archivists themselves, enabling them to better understand what they hold. Linking and cross-referencing collections will provide a more holistic picture of Dunham and further facilitate collaboration between collections. This will in turn increase access to these materials for researchers outside the US. SIU and the Library of Congress have already made plans to use our datasets.

Finally, there is the impact in terms of our industry partners, One Dance UK and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This project benefits the V&A mission to re-access cultural history, as well as One Dance UK's mission for Dance of the African Diaspora to collect and narrate the heritage that informs the work of black dancers in contemporary Britain; through our knowledge exchange, we will draw together these UK stories and place them in international context for the dance and other publics. We will further widen and deepen engagement with greater publics through blog posts for both partners, as well as a workshop on artistic networks at the V&A, through which we will connect our two partners. In addition, informal knowledge exchange with V&A staff during the training workshop and leading up to their 2020 exhibit on dance has the potential to change how they understand and work with their collections.


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