Dunham's Data Series

Dunham’s Data: Digital Methods for Dance Historical Inquiry is funded by the United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC AH/R012989/1, 2018-2022) and led by Kate Elswit (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London) and Harmony Bench (The Ohio State University). The project explores questions and problems that make the analysis and visualization of data meaningful for dance history through the case study of choreographer Katherine Dunham and is part of a larger suite of ongoing digital collaborations by Bench and Elswit, Movement on the Move. The Dunham’s Data team includes digital humanities postdoctoral research assistant Antonio Jiménez-Mavillard and dance history postdoctoral research assistants Takiyah Nur Amin and Tia-Monique Uzor.

Building on the analogue and early digital methodological precursors for tracking historical itineraries, the Dunham’s Data team manually compiled their data from many undigitized archival materials at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the Missouri Historical Society, and the Library of Congress, among other sources, documenting Dunham’s daily whereabouts, the works in her repertory, and the people she employed. The data was routinely cross-referenced and reconciled with the information obtained from Dunham’s personal and professional correspondence, contracts, and company documents including receipt books, payroll, costume lists, personal logs, programs, scrapbooks, lighting plots, and newspaper clippings. Additional supplemental data sources such as immigration records, local newspapers, and historical transportation maps and schedules were also used in constructing the datasets.

At present, Dunham’s Data most comprehensively represents 1947–60, during which Dunham traveled to every continent except Antarctica (Everyday Itinerary Dataset), the nearly 200 performers who traveled with her (Personnel Check-In Dataset), and 166 pieces of active repertory in various configurations during that time (Repertory Dataset).

The first public-use dataset from Dunham’s Data, released in 2020, is a manually curated Everyday Itinerary Dataset of Katherine Dunham’s touring from 1950-53. The 2022 update expanded this to 1947-1960, encompassing Dunham’s daily locations, travel, and performances every day over fourteen years of her most substantial period of consistent international touring. During this time, Dunham’s personal and professional travels took her to 190 unique cities over 433 trips. This dataset tracks geographic location (with 97% of 5110 days accounted for); and, less comprehensively, the accommodation in which Dunham stayed each night; the theatres, nightclubs, television studios, and other places she and the company performed; the modes of transportation used when travel occurred; additional transit cities through which she passed; and whether or not Dunham was likely to be in rehearsals or giving public performances.

The Check-In Dataset, which is the second dataset in the series, accounts for the comings and goings of Dunham’s dancers, drummers, and singers. The dataset discerns who among the nearly 200 performers were in the studio and theatre together over the fourteen years from 1947 to 1960. As with the Everyday Itinerary Dataset, data on check-ins come from scattered sources. While the Check-In Dataset was developed in tandem with information from the Everyday Itinerary Dataset, and vice versa, due to information available, there is a greater level of ambiguity in the Check-In Dataset and many dates are approximated in order to achieve accurate chronological sequence. By showing who shared time and space together, the Check-In Dataset can be used to trace potential lines of transmission of embodied knowledge within and beyond the Dunham Company.

The Repertory Dataset is the third dataset in the series. It concerns Dunham’s repertory and catalogues the various titles and descriptions by which a piece might be known, the years in which it was performed, and all of the singers, dancers, and drummers who were listed as performing in it. The Repertory dataset documents other aspects of each work such as composers of the music, the varying numbers of performers, places of inspiration where available, and whether pieces were performed in concert venues, nightclubs, or both. It also tracks fluid relationships among nearly 300 numbers identified in Dunham’s repertory from the 1930s onwards by examining the various scales at which Dunham repurposed choreographic elements over time and for different performance venues, and therefore the alternative ways that works might connect individual performers.

Visit the project website to learn more about Dunham’s Data.