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

Abstract

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 Dunham's Data has pioneered a new way of curating, analyzing, and visualizing historical dance data.

Through this project, we explore the kinds of questions and problems that make the analysis and visualization of data meaningful for dance history. We do so through the case study of choreographer Katherine Dunham, cataloguing a daily itinerary of Dunham's touring and travel from the 1930s-60s, the dancers, drummers, and singers in her employ during that time, and the repertory they performed. The innovative inquiry develops through an iterative process of manually curating datasets from a large body of undigitized primary source materials held by seven archives across the United States, and finding meaning and expression in tandem with exploratory data visualizations. These datasets and visualizations provide new means to understand how movement moves as we track the relationships between thousands of locations, and hundreds of performers and pieces across the decades of Dunham's career.

The core of the research sits on the foundation of a creative and curatorial 'digital humanities practice' (Bench and Elswit 2016) that contributes to an understanding of how digital humanities can both address and open up intellectual and methodological problems that matter to us as performance scholars. The resulting born-digital datasets and static and interactive data visualizations are research outputs in their own rights that depend on a deep engagement with and interpretation of archival materials, and are further inextricably linked with academic essays, which they support as forms of analysis and visual argumentation.

Our core finding is the articulation of a new research approach, based in this curatorial and creative practice, that develops models and tools by which the field of dance history can make use of digital methods, which also opens out dance history to new content. For example, working in relation to data challenges more conventional models of thinking dance history at the scale of the anecdote and the signature work, by encompassing analytic scales that range from the quotidian that underlies each individual datapoint, to the systemic connections across them. We argue in "Visceral Data" that digital methods need to be adapted to dance's specific questions, concerns, and traces. But doing so can further dance studies' ability to tackle critical questions that arise from the distribution of histories and practices across broad geographic or temporal ranges: "We argue that digital approaches help us to better understand the global circulation and diffusion of artists, practices, and ideas, at the same time as we also show how dance-based approaches to embodiment push the digital humanities to evidence and elaborate visceral histories of tacit dance-based knowledge" (Bench and Elswit 2022).
Exploitation Route We have seen substantial interest in training related to the methodological findings of this project. While we have previously done short class visits, we did our first "mini-residency" including a workshop in March 2022, and have future training opportunities in process.

Project datasets are being released open access, and we have already seen instances in which they change the scholarly interpretations of others working not only on Dunham but on performance cultures in the many regions through which she traveled and where she left influence.

In addition, we are seeing opportunities emerge for the visualizations themselves to circulate through broader publics who may have further uses for them, in particular in the cultural industries.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.dunhamsdata.org
 
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 our 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. Since 2020, we have also been in dialogue with multiple museums about both exhibiting the outcomes of this research, and about applying the methods to new archives, in the interests of discovering how this methodology might change public engagement with dance history. 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. Through NADAC, we have continued to be involved in programming regarding performing arts data curation and analysis for broader audiences. Since 2020, we have deepened the project's relationship with the Institute for Dunham Technique Certification, including community conversations and presentations, and bringing on members of IDTC as expert users, and a representative for the project advisory board. The next step of this relationship feeds into a new partnership toward a new dataset from studio knowledge that will be created through an equitable participatory design process (2022-23). 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 Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Visceral Histories, Visual Arguments: Dance-Based Approaches to Data
Amount £243,697 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/W005034/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 03/2025
 
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 97% of the days between Jan 1 1947 and Dec 31 1960. The 1950-53 Everyday Itinerary Dataset was released in September 2020, and the 1947-60 update will be released as a new version in Autumn 2022 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Correction of dates for archival holdings. See Narrative Impact. 
URL https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/NADAC/series/1620
 
Title Manually Curated Dataset of Katherine Dunham's Repertory 
Description This dataset concerns Dunham's repertory, based on an analysis of how Dunham framed her work for mid-century audiences in the form of programs and show patter, among other archival sources. The dataset 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, in particular organizing choreographic entities into a nested hierarchy of what we describe as shows, containers, pieces, and dances-in-dances. At present, the data is most complete for the 1947-60 time period. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This dataset will be released as part of our NADAC series in Autumn 2022 
URL https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/NADAC/series/1620
 
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 This dataset and our related user guide will be available from our NADAC series in Autumn 2022 
URL https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/NADAC/series/1620
 
Title Models for the analysis of lived bodily experiences including wellbeing and embodied transmission. 
Description Our project team has assembled a series of exploratory research workpackages to develop models for the analysis of lived bodily experiences including wellbeing and embodied transmission. These are currently available on our private GitHub, however, and will be disseminated by means of publication, portfolio, as well as, eventually, Open Source software. 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact As noted in impacts, we have been approached by scholars and by museums who are interested in the application of this model to historical research, and to shape public engagement with dance history. 
 
Title Static and Interactive Visualizations 
Description Interactive visualizations: - Interactive Flow of Katherine Dunham's Dancers, Drummers, and Singers: "Check-Ins" 1947-60 - Katherine Dunham's Global Travel, 1947-60 (Interactive Space-Time Mapping) - Interactive Network of Dunham Company Repertory: Shows, Containers, Pieces, and Dances-in-Dances - Interactive Chord Diagram of Katherine Dunham's Dancers, Drummers, and Singers, 1947-60 - Interactive Inspiration Map for Katherine Dunham's Repertory - Interactive Timeline of Katherine Dunham's Travel, 1947-60 Static Visualizations: - Geographic Repertory Inspiration Graph, 1947-60 - Company Makeup by Performer Passport Nationality over Time, 1947-60 - Well-being timeline collage, 1950-53 - Dunham Company Repertory: Shows, Containers, Pieces, and Dances-in-Dances. Static version. - Detail of "Plantation Dances" from Dunham Company Repertory - Select Performer First Check-Ins, by Country and Passport Nationality, 1947-60 - Performer Cohorts, 1947-60 - Performer "Check-Ins," 1947-60 (187 performers) - Relative city size to working days, 1950-53 - Frequency of nights stayed, 1950-53 - Timeline for cities in which Dunham stayed over seven nights in total, 1950-53 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact We are in discussions with multiple museums about exhibiting these visualizations and about applying this visualization model to a new archive for public exhibition 
URL https://dunhamsdata.org/portfolio/visualizations
 
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 We provided expertise and input on the development of a panel for DAD's 2019 Re:generations conference, and also produced 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 5.7k users over 7.9k unique sessions. Individual blog articles have been shared and discussed on social media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019,2020,2021,2022
URL http://www.dunhamsdata.org
 
Description Full List of Public 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 all conference presentations and invited talks related to the research, which involve at least some component of non-academic audiences - invited talks are listed separately under Recognition.

November 2022 - Newberry Library, Smith Center for the History of Cartography, Kenneth Nebenzahl Jr. Lectures in the History of Cartography (US)
March 2022 - University of Toronto, Institute for Dance Studies / iSchool (Canada)
February 2022 - Graphs and Networks in the Humanities: Technologies, Models, Analyses, and Visualizations (Netherlands)
November 2021 - Producing Memory in Dance: Oral History and Mnemotechnics, Université Côte d'Azur and Università Ca' Foscari Venezia (Italy)
November 2021 - Temple University, Dance Studies Colloquium, Philadelphia (US)
November 2021 - Modernist Studies Association, Chicago (US)
October 2021 - American Society for Theatre Research, San Diego (US)
October 2021 - Dance Studies Association, New Brunswick (US)
July 2021 - Association for Computers and the Humanities (US)
May 2021 - Dance Research Matters, Coventry (UK)
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)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019,2020,2021,2022