I Took A Katherine Dunham–Technique Dance Class And Learned About The Iconic Black Dancer’s Genius
Courtesy of Starr Rhett Rocque

We know by now that the City Girls and Cardi B’s “Twerk” video has caused a stir.

There’s one side that appreciates the athleticism of the women in the video, the fact that we’ve been blessed with the term, “Flewed Out,” and that the women involved seem to genuinely be enjoying themselves for themselves.

And then there’s the other side that’s all about respectability politics. You know the, “All they’re doing is upholding stereotypes about Black women being whores” people, but I digress.

I fall into the category of people who admire the athleticism.

I’m a fan of movement and I admire the actual bodily mechanics of twerking, which reminds me of Mapouka, a dance that originates from the Ivory Coast. There is something about the control of the isolations and undulations that I respect because it’s not easy, and I wanted to explore how to do that type of movement beyond the rudimentary ways in which I have in the past (like dropping it like it’s hot at dance parties, for example).

That being said, I decided to tap back into my roots as a trained dancer and do something I never really got a chance to dotake a Dunham Technique class so that I could get a better sense of the types of isolations and control that make for good twerking. Yes, you read that correctly, City Girls and Cardi B inspired me to get some culture, but for a ratchet reason.

Dunham Technique was created by Katherine Dunham, a legend in the worlds of dance and anthropology. She majored in anthropology at the University of Chicago, and after learning that much of Black culture in the United States and the Caribbean is rooted in Africa, decided to explore that concept in depth. She spent a lot of time traveling to parts of the Caribbean like Martinique, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Haiti, exploring folkloric dances and customs, and how they related to people, religion and cultures. She brought her findings back to the United States and Dunham Technique was born.

Starr Rhett Rocque in her younger dancing days // Courtesy of Starr Rhett Rocque

Dunham Technique is a fusion of ballet, modern and Afro-Caribbean dance over drum rhythms. One of Dunham’s most famous students was Eartha Kitt, but she also worked with many people to teach them her craft and made them promise to keep her legacy alive. Penny Godboldo is one of those people who learned directly from the master.  

Godboldo, a Detroit native, teaches Dunham workshops around the country, and certifies other dancers in Dunham Technique. When I found out that she was bringing her workshop to New York City earlier this year, I had to check it out.

Like I mentioned earlier, I have dance experience. I’ve done West African (Sabar), Modern, Tap, and Ballet, but never got around to taking an official Dunham Technique class. When I walked into the class at Cumbe Dance, which was described as “Open Level,” Godboldo asked me to describe my level of dance experience. We both figured that I would be able to follow along smoothly due to my experience. We were right.

The movements were familiar, but Dunham Technique was a work out work out, especially since I haven’t done any formal dance training in years. Plus, the hip movements and undulations were only a small part of it.

Godboldo reminded me of all the dance teachers I have had over the yearskind, but firm, and blunt, very blunt. She was also patient, which was encouraging, especially because not everyone in the class had a dance background.

 

Class began when our instructor signaled the drummers to begin playing one of many complex rhythms that carried us throughout the entire two hours. For the warm up, we went through ribcage, hip and head isolations that reminded me of my days dutty whining in White Plains bashments, but we also got down to business, and there were moments where she would throw out technical terms like port de bras, arabesque, plié, piqué, and made sure we knew how to do Dunham arms.

We also did stretches on the barre, and took dance combinations across the floor as Godboldo encouraged us to dance like we were actually performing, but also to have fun.

She explained that certain moves were helpful for flexibility and also corrected people’s form and posture when necessary. My hips are usually tight, which obviously isn’t conducive to twerking or whining, but Godboldo helped me loosen them up and work toward necessary lower back strength.

I probably won’t be dutty whining or twerking at anyone’s bashment or house party anytime soon (but you never know so it’s good to stay ready), but the workout and education that I got during my two our Dunham Technique session were invaluable. I got some cardio in, pushed my body to explore muscle control in underutilized places and got closer to Dunham’s genius with regard to her diasporic studies.

I went in with ratchet intent, but got an invaluable lesson in diasporic dance and a great way to shake up my workouts.

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