Katherine Dunham is Dead

SAMANTHA GROSS – Associated Press

Copyright Associated Press
NEW YORK, May 21 (AP) — 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.

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