Dance legend Katherine Dunham lives on in East St. Louis' Keith Williams
Triple-threat performer Keith Williams learned to dance the way he learned to walk and talk.
With the whole family watching, clapping and making their own moves, the youngest of seven grew up getting down, at home and at church picnics in mid-century East St. Louis.
Williams, 57, studied drama in high school, and he never took a dance class until college. While majoring in physical therapy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he happened upon a class at another school, Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville.
There, he fell in love -- with the Katherine Dunham technique. Taught by Dunham company original member Archie Savage, the class changed his life.
“I was blown away by the culture and the rhythms. It moved me so much that I transferred,” Williams said.
From East St. Louis to Carnegie Hall
In the mid-70s, Midwestern boys eyeing a dance career often risked certain ridicule when it came to telling their parents. But Williams’ family embraced his choice.
“I was very fortunate; I didn’t grow up with inhibitions about who I was and being a man, being a strong man,” Williams said. “So I had a freedom that a lot of men possibly didn’t have -- particularly men growing up in a place like East St. Louis.”
As a student at the Katherine Dunham Center for Performing Arts, Williams took master classes from Dunham herself, who was by then in her mid-60s. But dance was only part of the program.
“At the Dunham school, you have to study everything: dance, acting, voice, languages and drama. It’s very well-rounded,” Williams said.
Williams’ only sister Debbie Griffin realized her younger brother had a special talent when she saw him in a college production of “Porgy and Bess.”
“That’s when I knew my brother was going somewhere,” Griffin said. “Whenever he gets up in front in audience, he moves the people. You can just feel his spirt and his voice, his actions -- whatever he does just grabs you.”
In 1979, Williams was among a group of dancers who accompanied Dunham to New York City, where she received the Albert Schweitzer Music Award for contributions to performing arts and humanitarian efforts.
“I had a taste of New York and Carnegie Hall and that was incredible for me. And my mother had a chance to see me perform in Carnegie Hall,” Williams said.
Touring the world and home again
While in New York, Williams decided to take advantage of the city’s dance offerings.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d do, but I took some classes and I said, ‘I’m OK here even with the best people,’” Williams said.
Once he’d tasted the Big Apple, Williams wanted more. Following a couple of Muny seasons and acquiring his equity union card, he went back to New York to see if he could make it there.
And he did -- big time. Williams performed in “Once on This Island” and “Legs Diamond” on Broadway and in numerous Off-Broadway shows. Touring shows including “Porgy and Bess,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar” and “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber” took him to Europe, Japan and Australia.
“I’ve had a really wonderful career,” Williams said.
As he danced, sang and acted around the globe, Williams sent Dunham a program from each of his shows. One of roughly two dozen certified instructors of the Katherine Dunham Dance Technique in the world, Williams further holds the distinction of being certified by Dunham herself. In 1997, Williams won a prestigious Katherine Dunham Dance Award.
Dunham, who died in 2006 at the age of 97, was a social activist and author as well as a choreographer of more than 90 dances. Known as the matriarch of African-American dance, and an inspiration for the likes of Alvin Ailey, she saw the dancer as vessel for storytelling and a force for good.
“Ms. Dunham’s whole thing is that, as a human beings, we should not only be conscious of our spirit and our energy in class but we should carry that out into the world so we are contributors to the world,” Williams said.
Good times and no regrets
Following his certification, Williams returned to teach where he’d been taught, at the Katherine Dunham Center. Later, he became an adjunct instructor at Washington University and Lindenwood University. He’s also worked as a teacher-in-residence at various universities across the United States and in other countries.
In 2002, Williams’ sister joined him in another kind of creative endeavor, an East St. Louis restaurant and entertainment venue named for their mother, Margo, who died in 1997.
Margo’s was “a happening,” according to Sara Burke, who owns The City Studio Dance Center in St. Louis and has known Keith since they took Dunham dance classes together in the '70s.
“It had a wonderful art gallery and collection of black art, and great food,” Burke said. “He had great singers and actors, and Thomasina Clark would come and Mardra Thomas would come and sing, there were drummers; you just wanted it never to end.”
But the short era of Margo’s did end, in 2006, despite a small but intensely loyal following that did not spread to include enough wider support.
“I learned a lot from the experience, how hard entrepreneurship is, but it was also confirmed for me that I don't live my life with regret,” Williams said.
‘The blessing of another day’
In 2004, Williams’ career in education took a different turn. Since then, he’s been teaching academic subjects in the St. Louis public elementary schools. As he worked on his advanced degrees, substitute teaching gave him an income and a flexible schedule.
Now, he enjoys teaching a Katherine Dunham class on Monday nights at Caston's Ballet Academie in Webster Groves. A self described “single soldier,” he has a grown son and 15-year-old grandson in San Antonio. In 2008, Williams received an master's of art in directing at Lindenwood, and he’ll complete an MFA in directing from Lindenwood this spring. Along the way, he won a wide array of awards including a Woody King Jr. Award for best actor in “Damn Yankees” and Kevin Kline Awards for best supporting actor in “The Full Monty” and Best Choreography in “Sarafina.”
With his second master’s degree, Williams hopes to become a university professor and he may eventually pursue a Ph.D. Visiting Africa and Brazil are also goals. But regardless of what he’s working toward, Williams lives in the moment.
“The main thing drives me is the blessing of another day,” Williams said. “And it is a blessing, to greet another day and to make the best of it.”