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Reading gesture: Katherine Dunham, the Dunham Technique, and the vocabulary of dance as decolonizing archival praxis


This paper examines how the African diasporic dance works of anthropologist, dancer, and choreographer Katherine Dunham has endured over time through both archival intervention and through Dunham’s dance pedagogy, the Dunham Technique. Interrogating the ways that dance and gesture are rendered readable through visual literacies, the paper explores codification and transmission as apparatus for ensuring the continuation of culturally informed movement such as the Dunham Technique. The author argues that reading gesture as a document or as a record functions as a decolonial archival praxis, opening archives to modes of cultural expression that might otherwise be rendered invisible by extant western archival practices. The gestural document is conceptualized as a codified, culturally informed, and embodied record capable of being engaged at the archival threshold. The author also argues that gestural documents are capable of capturing and preserving cultural context as well as bringing into the present more robust and culturally informed readings of the past, generating conditions of possibility for remediating anti-Blackness in the archives.

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  1. Recordings of Dunham dancing L'Ag'Ya and footage from her Martinique field work are juxtaposed in the short film “Free To Dance,” (PBS 2001) which provides a glimpse into Dunham's choreographic method.

  2. See for example American Ballet Theatre, “Ballet Dictionary,” and Wikipedia, “Ballet Glossary,”

  3. It is worth noting that archival scholars such as Michelle Caswell have offered practical solutions in their work to guide others in dismantling white supremacy in archival spaces. See: Michelle Caswell, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly 87, no. 3 (July 2017): 222–235.


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Correspondence to Tonia Sutherland.

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Sutherland, T. Reading gesture: Katherine Dunham, the Dunham Technique, and the vocabulary of dance as decolonizing archival praxis. Arch Sci 19, 167–183 (2019).

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  • Katherine Dunham
  • Dunham Technique
  • Dance
  • Gesture
  • Transmission
  • Codification
  • Visual literacy
  • Decolonial archival praxis