Toward a Politics of Dance’s Everyday: Katherine Dunham on Tour, 1950-53

Dance in Transit data visualization showing light spots on a dark map indicating the locations of Katherine Dunham's touringHarmony Bench and Kate Elswit will be presenting at the 2018 International Federation for Theatre Research conference in Belgrade! What we are presenting at comes at the end of our pilot project, Dance in Transit (funded by BETHA, 2016-18) and just as we begin Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry (funded by AHRC, 2018-21). These projects extend our work on the geography and networks of historical dance touring and transmission (see Bench and Elswit, 2016), through the exemplary case study of African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006). Dunham worked across five continents in many contexts, from her early anthropological research in Haiti to her curatorial and administrative projects later in Dakar, New York, and St. Louis. She choreographed and performed in operas, revues, Broadway shows, Hollywood films, and modern concert dance. She was also an extraordinary self-archivist. In this presentation, we will show some data visualizations generated from daily travel data collected from primary resources documenting Dunham’s whereabouts from 1950-1953. We will also talk about what it means to track a single person’s movements every single day for four years (1461 days), the gaps and absences in the historical record, and the scholarly investments in mundane, personal, and behind-the-scenes information that emerged from this process.

Dunham’s Data receives AHRC funding

Kate Elswit (PI, University of London, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and Harmony Bench (CI, The Ohio State University) have been awarded over £566,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for their research project Dunham’s Data: Katherine Dunham and Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry. Elswit and Bench are co-authors of the first essay on digital analytics for dance history, and Dunham’s Data extends their previous development and implementation of archival databases and digital cartography. Together—and with international academic partner projects and UK industry partnerships with One Dance UK’s Dance of the African Diaspora and the Victoria & Albert Museum—they will pioneer the use of data analysis in dance history through a project that centres on the case study of African American choreographer Katherine Dunham (1909-2006).

Dunham is an exemplary figure for analysing the ways dance moves across both geographical locations and networks of cultural, artistic, and financial capital. She worked across five continents in many contexts, and also 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. Using 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. While digital methods have altered the landscape of most humanities and arts disciplines, the field of dance studies has yet to fully identify how it can benefit from these analytic approaches. 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.

A portion of this new project has been piloted with support from a Battelle Engineering, Technology, and Human Affairs Grant. See Movement on the Move ( for more.