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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 24 May 2006

NEW YORK—Katherine Dunham, a pioneering dancer and choreographer, anthropologist, author and civil rights activist who abandoned Broadway decades ago to teach culture in one of America's poorest cities, has died. She was 96.

Dunham died Sunday at the Manhattan assisted living facility where she lived, said Charlotte Ottley, the executive liaison for the organization tasked with preserving her artistic estate. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

Dunham is perhaps best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences into the European-dominated dance world. In the late 1930s, she established the nation's first self-supporting all-Black modern dance group.

"We weren't pushing 'Black is Beautiful,' we just showed it," she later wrote.

Her dance company toured internationally from the 1940s to the 1960s, visiting 57 nations on six continents. Her success was won in the face of widespread discrimination, a struggle Dunham championed by refusing to perform at segregated theaters.

For her endeavors, Dunham received 10 honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize at the Kennedy Center Honors and membership in the French Legion of Honor, as well as major honors from Brazil and Haiti.

"She is one of the very small handful of the most important people in the dance world of the 20th century," said Bonnie Brooks, chair of the dance department at Columbia College in Chicago. "And that's not even mentioning her work in civil rights, anthropological research and for humanity in general."

After 1967, she lived most of each year in predominantly Black East St. Louis, Ill., where she struggled to bring the arts to a Mississippi River city of burned-out buildings and high crime.

She set up an eclectic compound of artists from around the globe, including Harry Belafonte. Among the free classes offered were dance, African hair-braiding and woodcarving, conversational Creole, Spanish, French and Swahili, as well as more traditional subjects such as aesthetics and social science.

Dunham also offered martial arts training in hopes of getting young, angry males off the street. Her purpose, she said, was to steer the city's residents "into something more constructive than genocide."

Plagued by arthritis and poverty in the latter part of her life, Dunham made headlines in 1992 when she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U.S. policy that repatriated Haitian refugees.

"It's embarrassing to be an American," Dunham said at the time.

During her career, she choreographed "Aida" for the Metropolitan Opera and musicals such as "Cabin in the Sky" for Broadway. She also appeared in several films, including "Stormy Weather" and "Carnival of Rhythm."

The daughter of an African American tailor and a French Canadian and Native American mother who served as a school administrator, Dunham was born June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

As an anthropology student at the University of Chicago in 1935, she took her first trip to Haiti on a fellowship to study Caribbean culture and dance. The experience convinced Dunham, who was paying for college by giving dance lessons, to go into dance full-time.

"The best career advice given to the young is: 'Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it," ' she said later.

Dunham was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years before his death in 1986. She is survived by a daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt, who lives in Rome.

— The Associated Press

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