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Dance Legend Katharine Dunham Dies at 96

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Legendary choreographer, dancer, author and civil rights activist Katherine Dunham died in her sleep on May 21 in New York City, according to friends. She was 96.

Though Dunham had been in failing health, the cause of death was not announced.

Ten days before her death, she appeared at a Manhattan screening of the ABC special “Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball,” which honored Winfrey’s personal heroes, including Dunham.

Dunham’s groundbreaking work from the 1930s through the ’60s was among the first in Western society to exalt Afro-Caribbean culture. Her artistry helped pave the way for stars including Josephine Baker, Alvin Ailey, Sammy Davis Jr., Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad and Janet Jackson.

Born June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., Dunham was the daughter of an African-American dry cleaner and a French-Canadian mother who died when Dunham was very young. Dunham studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, and at 21 founded the Ballet Negre, her first company in Chicago.

As a graduate student in anthropology, she traveled to the Caribbean to study traditional dances there, and returned to the U.S. to integrate rhythms she’d learned in Haiti, Brazil and Cuba into traditional American dance.

Among her other breakthroughs: She introduced New York to her shimmy in “Le Jazz Hot” in 1940; originated femme fatale Georgia Brown on Broadway for choreographer George Balanchine’s “Cabin in the Sky” (Lena Horne played the role in the MGM movie); and appeared in such Hollywood films as Carnival of Rhythm and Stormy Weather.

Besides her Manhattan apartment, Dunham maintained residences in East St. Louis, Ill., where for decades she ran inner-city cultural programs, and in Port au Prince, Haiti.

She was married to artist and designer John Pratt from 1941 until his death in 1986. She is survived by their daughter, Marie Christine Dunham Pratt, who lives in Rome.