Katherine Dunham, 96; Created Major Black Modern Dance Company

Times Staff Writer

Katherine Dunham, the groundbreaking choreographer, anthropologist and social activist who founded America’s first major black modern dance company, died peacefully Sunday in her sleep in New York City, friends said. She was 96.

Dunham had been in failing health for several years. The cause of death was not announced.

An indomitable cultural figure that Dance Magazine once called a “one woman revolution,” Dunham brushed past barriers and social prejudices to integrate the rhythms she learned in Haiti, Brazil and Cuba into American formal dance.

During Dunham’s restless, passionate life, she took turns as a published anthropologist, the toast of Broadway, a dancer in Hollywood films and a mentor to young dancers in East St. Louis, Ill., one of America’s poorest communities. Dunham’s compositions, often showcased in popular revues, were an inspiration to young dancers such as Alvin Ailey and Jose Limon, who would win greater acclaim than she did in the modern dance world.

“Katherine Dunham lived through an America that was deeply segregated, where race was always an issue of crisis,” said actor Harry Belafonte, a friend and supporter. “For her to have made the contribution she did to culture, through her dance and her intellect, enriched America. She brought, through her art and intellectual passion and power, an insight into black life that shaped everyone’s thinking of who we are.”


Judith Jamison, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, said that Dunham “made it easier for dancers of color to realize the possibilities of being on stage; being visible; showcasing our theatricality, creativity and beauty as well as celebrating the [African] diaspora,” she said in a statement. “Mr. Ailey was in total awe of her accomplishments and her contributions to make our dance lives possible.”

“It’s a huge loss,” said Dance/USA spokeswoman Ann Norris. “Her choreography alone, and the barriers she broke, were unprecedented for her time. She was a very courageous woman.”

Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Ill., on June 22, 1909, the daughter of an African American dry cleaner and a French Canadian mother who died when Dunham was a small child. She would grow into a young woman of unusual ambition and curiosity.

At the University of Chicago, she also became a promising anthropology student, winning the Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to study anthropology in the Caribbean. But she always loved dance. At 21, she founded the Ballet Negre, her first company, in Chicago.

Her dance career would marry her two passions, drawing on her classical background studying with Russian dancer Ludmilla Speranzeva, and the Afro-Caribbean dances she discovered in her travels.

Elizabeth Chin, an associate professor of anthropology at Occidental College who studied with Dunham in 1993 in St. Louis, said Dunham taught the isolated movements of body parts that are now a staple of modern dance.

“People who were studying with her in New York in the 1940s say she invented isolationism, which is standard in jazz now,” Chin said. “A lot of great dancers incorporated that. A lot of people say she is the one who started that thing. She was one of the really great African American pioneers of modern dance.”

She aimed for a popular audience. She introduced New York to her shimmy in “Le Jazz Hot” in 1940. She created Georgia Brown for George Balanchine in his “Cabin in the Sky,” (though she did not receive a choreography credit). She appeared in Hollywood films, such as “Carnival of Rhythm” and “Stormy Weather.”

She took her popular Broadway “Tropical Revue” on an American tour that would inspire a teenage Ailey. Eventually, the renamed Katherine Dunham Dance Company would perform in more than 50 countries, until well into the 1960s.

She choreographed dozens of works that plunged modern dance into unabashed ethnicity, among them “Field Hands,” “Drum Ritual,” “Octoroon Ball” and “Jazz Finale.”

In Dunham’s heyday, “she would pack them in,” said Cristyne Lawson, a former Alvin Ailey dancer, who recently stepped down as dean of the dance school at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. “She was commercially more successful than the Martha Graham company, which I was [a part of ] in those days.”

Dunham often turned down invitations to perform for segregated audiences in the South, and when she found her company booked at a whites-only theater, she lectured the audiences on the evils of segregation, and told them to integrate if they wanted her company back.

During a World War II-era tour, she filed successful racial discrimination lawsuits against hotels in Chicago and Cincinnati, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Her complaints against similar conditions in Brazil, where she was enormously popular, are credited with providing the impetus for a bill against segregation there, according to “Kaiso,” a new anthology about Dunham.

In 1951, she shocked audiences with “Southland,” a dance about a Southern lynching that Dunham believes hurt her efforts to obtain U.S. sponsorship for her overseas travels.

For his part, Belafonte said he believed that “race played a big part” in her failure to achieve “the lofty level she deserved.”

Dunham married her costume designer, John Pratt, in 1941 and they adopted an orphan, Marie-Christine, from Martinique. Pratt died in 1986.

Some were surprised when she and Pratt moved to impoverished East St. Louis in the mid-1960s and began a cultural program to teach dance and martial arts to young people there.

“She was a legendary person who was committed to doing the hard work you have to do ... in a community like East St. Louis,” said poet Quincy Troupe, a St. Louis native who visited her there.

“That’s important work that sometimes goes unnoticed. It’s not glamorous.”

Dunham made international news from East St. Louis in 1992, when she undertook a 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S. policy of turning back Haitian refugees to their military-ruled island.

It was in the early 1990s that Belafonte visited her and found her bedridden and stricken with arthritis.

“When I discovered her economic circumstances, I was absolutely shocked,” he said. “I eventually convinced her to leave.”

Belafonte underwrote her medical bills and found her a home in an assisted-living facility in Manhattan with a view of the Hudson River, with the help of friends such as actors Whoopi Goldberg and Danny Glover.

In the years since then, Dunham has lived comfortably, her life punctuated by honors and accolades.

A Harvard University website says Dunham has received 48 honorary doctorates, along with such honors as induction into the French Legion of Honor and the Presidential Medal of the Arts.

Dunham was at home in bed on Sunday when a former member of her dance company, Madeline Preston, who had spent the night at the apartment, tucked the covers around her and went out midmorning.

Preston said an aide called her and told her Dunham appeared to be in distress, but by the time Preston called 911, it was too late to revive Dunham.

“She was getting ready to go, very peacefully,” Preston said. “She told me about three days ago that I shouldn’t go before she goes. Maybe she was trying to choreograph this.”

Preston called Dunham’s daughter, Marie-Christine Pratt-Dunham, so she could fly in from her home in Rome.

In East St. Louis, Dunham’s supporters had been planning a birthday celebration for Dunham on June 22 and preparing her home there for her.

“We were all taken by surprise,” said Dr. Lena Weathers, the president of the board of directors of the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis. “It makes it that much more important to carry on her legacy.”