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, died May 21 in New York. She was 96.
Dunham was perhaps best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences to the European-dominated dance world. In the late 1930s, she established the first self-supporting all-black modern dance group in the United States.
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.
After 1967, Dunham lived most of each year in predominantly black East St. Louis, Illinois, where she struggled to bring the arts to a Mississippi River city of burned-out buildings and high crime.
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.
Dunham was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years before his death in 1986.