Art Doc of the Week | Steps of the Gods

Iconic African American dancer Katherine Dunham uncovered the African spiritual essence of Black diasporic dance.

Ernest Hardyby Ernest Hardy

In his landmark 1983 book “Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy,” groundbreaking art scholar Robert Farris Thompson connects dots of African diasporic artistic innovation by locating a “flash of the spirit” rooted in various African cultural and religious practices. Post the African slave trade, that spirit manifested and evolved in site-specific ways that echoed familiar/familial energy and aesthetics across all the places slave ships had unloaded their human cargo. Spirit was (and is) the connective thread.

The PBS documentary Steps of the Gods opens in Haiti, 1936.  Riveting B&W footage shows what African American dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham witnessed in Haiti on the last leg of a year-long study of Caribbean dance in which she tried to decode why Black people around the world dance and move the way they do.

Katherine Dunham, courtesy Getty Images.

Katherine Dunham, courtesy Getty Images.

“She was tracing her own roots as a Black person, a person of African ancestry. She would have seen dance as a means of communicating, as a means of expressing life and living itself,” says Rex Nettleford, Director National Dance Theater of Jamaica.

The possibilities for Black dancing and dancers in the professional dance world at that time was limited to say the least. Dunham wasn’t merely interested in “a seat at the table,” however. She wanted to celebrate and show the dignity and artistry of the African dance influences she was drawing upon. Her goal became to impart what she had seen and learned in her travels to her dancers so it would be the foundation of their knowledge about dance, movement, and the spiritual component girding it all. She told them they would be learning, “The steps of the gods.”

Katherine Dunham in a still from Stormy Weather. Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Katherine Dunham in a still from Stormy Weather. Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Steps of the Gods – split in two parts on Youtube – is important not only for outlining Dunham’s work, but for taking her perspective on African diasporic creativity and as its own critical foundation.  As the film moves away from Dunham to cast a larger eye on the history and trajectory of Black dance and dancers working against multiple canvases of bigotry at once, Dunham’s politics and vision act as the steadying oar for both the artists in the frame and the viewer learning their stories.

Top Photo: Publicity circa 1937. Courtesy NY Times and Dunham estate.