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.
Description By manually curating a dataset of Katherine Dunham's daily locations, initially between 1950-53 and subsequently expanding to 1947-60, we have begun to develop a reference point from which to correct the dating of certain archival materials we encounter. There has been interest in these corrections from the archives from which out materials arise. As a result, we will be producing documentation to be permanently housed alongside selected archival materials. In the interim, archivists who care for several Dunham holdings have begun to contact us for reference inquiries, and also to direct academic and artistic patrons to us for further questions. We did a presentation of ongoing research specifically targeted for performing arts archivists in December 2020, and attendees represented organizations including the Dance Heritage Coalition, the Library of Congress, the National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture, the National Theatre, the Harry Ransom Center, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and NUI Galway. In 2020, the 1950-53 Everyday Itinerary Dataset was acquired by the National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture, which is the repository sponsored by the US National Endowment for the Arts, and will be housed in that repository for perpetuity. In 2019, we collaborated with one of our partner organizations, One Dance UK's Dance of the African Diaspora, in order to develop a panel for their 2019 conference, alongside materials to meaningfully build interest regarding both the conference and the research itself, including a piece in DAD's Hotfoot magazine.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Interactive Visualizations 
Description Interactive visualizations: - Everyday Itinerary Interactive Timeline (1947-60) - Performer 'Check-Ins' (1947-1960) - Interactive Sankey flow diagram for Personnel Check-Ins dataset - Dunham Company Repertory: Containers, Pieces, and Dances in Dances - Interactive network diagram for Repertory dataset 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact These are works in progress. 
Title Manually Curated Dataset of Katherine Dunham's Everyday Itinerary 
Description We have manually curated a dataset of Katherine Dunham's Daily whereabouts and performances in order to have a reference dataset for ongoing work. To date, we have 93% of the days between Jan 1 1950 and Dec 31 1953. We are currently in the process of expanding to 1947-60. The 1950-53 Everyday Itinerary Dataset was released in September 2020. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Correction of dates for archival holdings. See Narrative Impact. 
Title Manually Curated Dataset of Katherine Dunham's Repertory 
Description This dataset concerns Dunham's repertory, and catalogues the various titles and descriptions by which a piece might be known, the years in which it was performed, and all of the singers, dancers, and drummers who are ever listed as performing in it. We have also documented other aspects of each work such as composers of the music, the varying numbers of performers, and whether pieces were performed in concert venues, nightclubs, or both. We further examined program notes that indicate real or imagined connections between different pieces and different places or historical time periods. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact not yet. 
Title Manually Curated Dataset of Performer Check-Ins for Dunham's dancers, Drummers, and Singers, 1947-60 
Description The manually-curated check-in dataset accounts for the comings and goings of Dunham's dancers, drummers, and singers over time, helping to discern who among almost two hundred performers were in the studio and theatre together over the fourteen years from 1947 to 1960 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact not yet 
Title Models for the analysis of lived bodily experiences including wellbeing and embodied transmission. 
Description Our project team has put together a series of exploratory research workpackages to develop models for the analysis of lived bodily experiences including wellbeing and embodied transmission. These are currently only available on our private GitHub, however, they will be disseminated by means of a forthcoming publication as well as, eventually, Open Source software. 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Not to date. 
Description One Dance UK's Dance of the African Diaspora 
Organisation Association of Dance of the African Diaspora
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution At present, we are providing expertise and input on the development of a panel for DAD's 2019 Re:generations conference, and also producing materials to generate interest for the conference as a whole. We also contributed an article to a 2019 issue of Hotfoot Magazine.
Collaborator Contribution DAD has provided mentorship for the project (advisor Mercy Nabirye's time), introductions to international dancers related to aspects of this project, and also a forum in which to circulate information about this research among the professional dance community (Hotfoot magazine).
Impact outcomes recorded elsewhere
Start Year 2018
Description Beta version of Dunham's Data Teaching Toolkit (Lesson 1 on Everyday Itinerary) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact The teaching toolkit was not an initial part of our funding proposal, but arose as we sought to create a usable resource for educators across various learning contexts, that would help faculty and students consider how digital methods may be useful to the study of dance histories. This first lesson from the Dunham's Data teaching toolkit includes an introductory letter to instructors, a lesson plan including writing and discussion prompts, a bibliography for assigned and further readings, and selected archival materials from Southern Illinois University's Special Collections, and from the Missouri Historical Society. The lesson plan is divided into two sections intended for those working with undergraduate students over the course of two 50-75-minute class sessions. Section I introduces Katherine Dunham and Section II focuses on archival exploration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.dunhamsdata.org/blog/toward-teaching-toolkit
Description Dunham's Data website and research blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We have built a website for Dunham's Data, which was launched around the project start date of Aug 1. This includes information about researchers, advisors, and partners, as well as a research blog that is written for a general public who may wish to find out more about the ongoing work of this project. To date we have had 4116 views from over 1200 unique visitors. Individual blog articles have been shared on social media, and we have also trialed an interactive community map.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019,2020
URL http://www.dunhamsdata.org
Description Full List of Public Academic and Non-Academic Talks Related to Dunham's Data 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact List of conference presentations and invited talks(*) related to the research

October 2021 - American Society for Theatre Research, San Diego (US)
February 2021 - National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture / ICPSR Love Data Week (US)
November 2020 - American Society for Theatre Research, New Orleans (US) *postponed due to COVID-19
November 2020 - What is the Digital Doing? A Workshop in the Interface, Freie Universität, Berlin (Germany)
September 2020 - Columbia University, Studies in Dance University Seminar, New York (US)
July 2020 - DH2020, Ottawa (Canada) *cancelled due to COVID-19
May 2020 - London Theatre Seminar (UK) *cancelled due to COVID-19
March 2020 - University of Copenhagen (Denmark)
March 2020 - Humane Infrastructures, UCLA Experimental Humanities (US)
February 2020 - Collegium on African Diasporic Dance, Durham (US)
November 2019 - Re:generations, Dance of the African Diaspora / One Dance UK, Salford (UK)
November 2019 - Distinguished Visiting Scholars Lecture Series, University of Tennessee Humanities Center, Knoxville (USA)
October 2019 - MOCO International Conference on Movement and Computing, Tempe (USA)
July 2019 - Association for Computers and the Humanities, Pittsburgh (US)
March 2019 - Current Research in Digital History symposium, Arlington (US)
October 2018 - Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black conference, University of Maryland (US)
October 2018 - Making Change Through the Humanities, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm (Sweden)
July 2018 - International Federation for Theatre Research, working group on Digital Humanities in Theatre Research, Belgrade (Serbia)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020,2021