Dance lecturer teaches Katherine Dunham’s legacy, technique

In Brodie Hall’s Fink Lecture Room, the college’s 20th century dance history class was treated to guest lecturer Molly Christie González on Monday Feb. 20, as sponsored by various programs such as The Department of Student Life and Orchesis Student Dance Organization.  

A former student of American dancer Katherine Dunham and current adjunct professor at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, González spoke of Dunham’s legacy and the messages the legendary artist aimed to portray through her art. 

It was by chance that González met and came to be instructed by Dunham. At just 12 years old, González was introduced to the famous “Dunham technique” through a teacher who studied with Dunham.

Five years later, that same teacher brought her fellow company members to Dunham’s dance seminar in St. Louis, Missouri. González said that Dunham “always had an intergenerational approach to education and life,” as her seminar had a range of participants from children to professional dancers to older community members. 

In her lecture, González emphasized Dunham’s legacy, impactful messages and effects on the study of dance by presenting the idea of an artist as a scholar, activist and an educator all in one. 

Dunham’s purpose was to break barriers in the discipline of dance. In addition to dance, she studied anthropology, which prompted her to consider the meaning behind dance. Dunham would ask such questions as why do people partake in the activity or how do dancers grow as people through their art. 

As a result, Dunham’s approach to teaching dance was unconventional, according to González. She would occasionally stop her lessons to ask her students, “Why are you here?” Dunham was very reliant on the functions of dance rather than the form, which she called “socialization through art.”

Outside of the performance area of dance, Dunham wanted to break the stigma and the labeling not only behind her identity as dancer, but also that of dancers everywhere. Often recognized as the “mother of black dance,” Dunham wanted to break the label of a “black” dancer to be simply recognized for her talent and value as a human being. 

Additionally, Dunham aimed to eliminate the negative stigmas of dance in the academic world. She wished to show that dance can be both beautiful and smart, not strictly one way or the other. She faced these problems “head on” through her teachings and specific dances, according to González. 

Dunham’s technique is all about “movement for a purpose” and connecting to others through the art form. She comprised this technique from her personal opinions as well as from studying history from other cultures such as those in the Caribbean. All of this led to Dunham becoming a prominent figure in the creation of modern dance. 

González’s goal was to teach Dunham’s technique and legacy through the eyes of the dancer’s students. Professor of dance studies Jonette Lancos met González at SUNY Brockport—both professors’ alma mater—in 2015, where González was performing. 

Lancos reached out to González—who has been an artist resident at Geneseo for the past two semesters—to perform in the upcoming Geneseo Dance Ensemble performance 49 Live: Leaping Boundaries, to which González agreed. 

González encouraged the student dancers at her lecture to pass Dunham’s legacy onto their peers and younger generations of dancers. 

“Now it’s on you. Now it’s your responsibility to pass it on,” González said. “She is very relevant; she needs to be taught and she needs to be shared.”