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Wednesday, March 1, 2006 09:46 am

Saving the last dance

East St. Louisans struggle to raise money to bring dance legend home

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Katherine Dunham
In East St. Louis, at the now-shuttered Club Monastery, a dance, aptly called “the Mono” — an abbreviation of its birthplace’s name — was born in the late 1990s, though one could argue that the spirit of the Mono in East Boogie predates the young adults who reportedly made it up. Completing the Mono involves the synchronization of a number of isolated pops, stomps, and twists of the back, arms, legs, and pelvis. It’s textbook “Dunham technique,” invented by Joliet-born modern-dance pioneer Katherine Dunham, who in the ’60s made a home in East St. Louis and spent the next 30-plus years splitting her time among that city, New York City, and Haiti as a dancer, teacher, and activist. For several years, Dunham, now 97, has wanted to move back to East St. Louis from New York. Now, says Charlotte Otley, Dunham’s longtime executive liaison, the dancer is facing eviction next week from her New York City apartment. It’s also doubtful that Dunham will be able to return to her East St. Louis home, Otley says; there’s simply no money to support her. The living quarters of Dunham’s home here, which also houses the Katherine Dunham Center for Arts and Humanities, have been outfitted with wheelchair ramps and lifts for the ailing dancer. However, Otley says, no money exists in the center’s operating budget to pay Dunham’s basic living expenses. “We’re in quite a dilemma,” Otley says. “It’s an odd place to be at 97 and to have a challenge keeping lights on.” Part of the problem is that nobody thought that Dunham would live so long, and cash dried up. Caregivers hired to look after her and prepare Caribbean meals don’t need cars in New York City, Otley explains; in East St. Louis, however, they will. “We don’t even have a corner store for her to buy bread in her [East St Louis] neighborhood,” she says. In addition, says KDCAH board chairwoman Dr. Lena Weathers, “The best living conditions are here, in her own house. We want her to come back so we can wait on her.” Funds for programming are readily available, Otley says, noting that KDCAH received a $1 million grant to renovate the center, located on North 10th Street in East St. Louis. However, grant money cannot be used to pay for the cooks and around-the-clock nurses Dunham needs. Otley sees investment in Dunham’s legacy as an economic-development opportunity. Once also a playground for artists Josephine Baker, Miles Davis, and Ike and Tina Turner, East St. Louis boasts a cultural history that can provide an impetus for economic growth in East St. Louis just as it has in Harlem, Otley says. Besides, she says, the city owes it to Dunham, who she calls the city’s “crown jewel.” About 10 years ago, thieves broke into the museum for the first time in its 30-year history. In what she believes is a show of respect to Dunham, every year since, pieces of the booty — a mask here, a small statue there — Otley says, have reappeared. Otley, who will travel to New York this week to attempt to work out a deal with Dunham’s landlord, estimates that $300,000 will buy Dunham 18 months to 2 years in East St. Louis. Some progress is being made, Otley says. Dunham’s foundation has gone from a negative to a zero balance, and a local attorney has offered to match up to $25,000 in donations. Others, including the local Boy Scout council and volunteer landscapers, have helped out where they could. “We have a tendency to worship our icons after they’re gone,” Otley says. “Everyone wants to be associated with them — then why are they dying on the vine, poor and devastated?” She points specifically to Josephine Baker and, more recently, Rosa Parks, the “mother of the civil-rights movement,” both of whom died nearly destitute: “Why is it a lesson we have to learn again?”
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