Katherine Dunham, a pioneering dancer and choreographer, author and civil rights activist who left Broadway 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, executive liaison for the organization that preserves her artistic estate. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Dunham was perhaps best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences to 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.
During her career, Dunham 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.”
Her dance company toured internationally from the 1940s to the ’60s, 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, chairman 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, Dunham 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 and 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 residents of East St. Louis “into something more constructive than genocide.”
Government cuts and a lack of private funding forced her to scale back her programs in the 1980s. Despite a constant battle to pay bills, Dunham continued to operate a children’s dance workshop and a museum.
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.
Dunham’s New York studio attracted illustrious students like Marlon Brando and James Dean who came to learn the “Dunham Technique,” which Dunham herself explained as “more than just dance or bodily executions. It is about movement, forms, love, hate, death, life, all human emotions.”
In her later years, she depended on grants and the kindness of celebrities, artists and former students to pay for her day-to-day expenses. Will Smith and Harry Belafonte were among those who helped her catch up on bills, Ottley said.
“She didn’t end up on the street though she was one step from it,” Ottley said. “She has been on the edge and survived it all with dignity and grace.”
Dunham was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years before his death in 1986.