Othella Dallas, Keeper of Katherine Dunham’s Flame, Dies at 95

Ms. Dallas taught the Afro-Caribbean-influenced Dunham dance technique in Europe well into her 90s. She also had a career as a blues, jazz and R&B singer.

An obituary by Alex Vadukul for The New York Times.

Othella Dallas, who was one of the last surviving early members of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the nation’s first self-supporting Black modern dance troupe, and taught the Afro-Caribbean-influenced Dunham technique in Europe well into her 90s, died on Nov. 28 at a nursing home in Binningen, Switzerland. She was 95.

Her son, Peter Wydler, said the cause was lung cancer.

The sound of conga drums reverberated at Ms. Dallas’s studio in Basel, Switzerland, for years as she gyrated to their rhythm. Her students watched reverently, eager to learn from a woman who had learned from Dunham, the matriarch of Black dance, who died in 2006.

“I had three mothers in my life,” Ms. Dallas said in a 2016 documentary film about her, “What Is Luck?” “My mother, my grandmother and my godmother. And then I had Katherine Dunham. My professor.”

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Ms. Dallas’s dance school, which she opened in 1975, is considered the only school in Europe that teaches pure Dunham technique, a polyrhythmic style rooted in early Black dance that Dunham developed through her ethnographic research in the Caribbean in the 1930s.Alvin Ailey studied with Dunham in the 1940s, and the technique’s legacy lives on institutionally at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.

Ms. Dallas teaching a class at her dance school in Basel, Switzerland, last year. She continued to teach well into her 90s.
Ms. Dallas teaching a class at her dance school in Basel, Switzerland, last year. She continued to teach well into her 90s.

But as the style’s prominence diminished, Ms. Dallas’s devotion to teaching it rendered her a powerful living link to dance history.

Glory Van Scott, a former principal Dunham dancer who is a master teacher of the technique, said Ms. Dallas was among the last of her era.

“Very few are left from her generation,” Dr. Van Scott said. “But as long as there’s someone out there doing Dunham, we’re still here.”

“You feel it like a religion,” she added. “It’s in our bloodline. You live with it when you teach it. You respect it. And then you give it to someone else, so they may have the honor of teaching it and seeing the genius of Dunham.”

Ms. Dallas left the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in 1949, and although she was associated with her illustrious mentor her whole life, she hardly lived in her shadow.

She seized her own spotlight in the 1950s as a blues and R&B singer, sharing stages with Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. She appeared at the Apollo Theater in Harlem with Sammy Davis Jr. And she had the distinction of singing in a stage musical orchestrated by a young Quincy Jones, “Free and Easy,” which flopped so badly that it left him and his band broke and stranded in Europe.

Ms. Dallas settled in Switzerland in the 1960s, but she also kept performing, gradually becoming an esteemed elder stateswoman of the blues. In 2005, she played at the founding concert of the Festival da Jazz in St. Moritz, and she went on to perform there annually. Last year she received a Swiss Jazz Award.

Ms. Dallas at the Festival da Jazz in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 2010.She performed at the festival annually starting in 2005.
Ms. Dallas at the Festival da Jazz in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 2010.She performed at the festival annually starting in 2005.

After decades running her school in Basel, she became known as an eccentric local personality. She wore elaborate jewelry and colorful headwraps, and she rode the bus to class, her diminutive figure lugging a roller bag filled with leotards and dance equipment.LOVE LETTER: Your weekly dose of real stories that examine the highs, lows and woes of relationships.Sign Up

Ms. Dallas was born just before the Great Depression in Memphis and grew up waiting in breadlines with her mother. She lived in a creaky old house on the outskirts of town. And she was filled with verve from the start.

“I was dancing since I came out of my mother’s womb,” she said in the documentary. “I said, ‘Where are the people? Where’s the microphone? Where’s the musicians? I’m ready to dance.’”

In the 1930s, while Ms. Dallas was studying ballet in St. Louis, Dunham visited the school one day, and Ms. Dallas caught her attention.

“They said, ‘Go dance for Ms. Dunham,’” Ms. Dallas recalled. “And Ms. Dunham, she had her eye on me. I’ll never forget that.”

When she was 19, Ms. Dallas headed to New York at Dunham’s invitation to study at her school near Times Square. She was initiated into Dunham’s militaristic training regimen, required to scrub floors, wash clothes and do her teacher’s hair.

“My attitude,” Ms. Dallas told The New York Times last year, was “to bleed her, to get everything that I ever wanted to learn in my life about dance.”

Ms. Dallas performed on Broadway in 1946 in “Bal Nègre,” a revue staged and choreographed by Dunham, and toured with the company throughout Europe. In Paris, she met a Swiss engineer named Peter Wydler. When Dunham discovered that Ms. Dallas intended to get married, she was initially furious, but she served as Ms. Dallas’s witness and popped the Champagne at the wedding in 1949. Eartha Kitt sang “C’est Si Bon.”

Ms. Dallas left the company later that year to stay with her husband in Switzerland. She taught the Dunham technique in Zurich in the 1950s, but soon left to pursue a music career back in America. In 1975, finally settled in Europe, she opened her dance school in Basel.

“Yes, I’ve had luck,” she said in the documentary, reflecting on her improbable life. “I’ve been lucky to have so much. That means, what is luck?”

Othella Dallas was born Othella Talmadge Strozier on Sept. 26, 1925, in Memphis. Her father, Frank, was a pharmacist. Her mother, Thelma Lee, was a seamstress who also sang in vaudeville. A grandmother ran a music school. Othella attended high school in St. Louis and aspired to become a doctor.

As a girl, she suffered from rickets; doctors suggested resetting her legs. Instead, as she told it, her grandmother took her to a voodoo priest, who prescribed that her legs get massaged in greasy dishwater while he recited an incantation.

After enough dips in the kitchen sink, he said she was cured.

“Let her dance,” he proclaimed.

“Let her dance where?” her mother asked. “Those old dirty nightclubs?”

“I don’t care where she dances,” he said. “But let her dance.”

Before long, Dunham discovered Ms. Dallas and invited her to New York. As Ms. Dallas studied with her, Dunham’s ambitions for her dance company grew. She pursued Broadway and eyed an international tour.

“She said, ‘I’m going to put my people on Broadway,’” Ms. Dallas recalled. “And as the first Black company on Broadway, we had to work like a dog.”

Of those days, Dunham once wrote: “We weren’t pushing ‘Black Is Beautiful.’ We just showed it.”

Ms. Dallas pursued her singing career in the 1950s, changing her surname from Strozier because her manager thought “Dallas” looked slicker on a marquee.

In 1960, after making annual visits to her family in Europe for several years, she joined her husband and son in Switzerland, and they settled in Binningen, a town just outside Basel. She kept a scrapbook in her bedroom filled with photographs and press clips from her day in the spotlight.

When Dunham died in 2006, Ms. Dallas recommitted to teaching her mentor’s technique. She traveled across Europe hosting workshops at dance schools and events.

“She was aware she was pretty much the only one from her time still being able to teach,” her son said. “It was important for her to keep it pure.”

Ms. Dallas in Zurich in 2019. 
Ms. Dallas in Zurich in 2019. 

In addition to her son, Ms. Dallas is survived by two grandchildren and a half brother, Frank Strozier, a jazz saxophonist. Her husband died in 1982.

Ms. Dallas learned she had lung cancer in 2018. Her final performance was a two-hour set at the Atlantis club in Basel this February. She continued to teach at her school three days a week until the lockdown began in March. She was moved to a nursing home over the summer.

During her last weeks at the school, she stuck to a favorite routine. When the studio emptied out after class, she liked to put on a Ray Charles CD. As the music played, she danced in front of the mirror by herself.

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