05/23/2006 NEW YORK - Katherine Dunham, 96, a pioneering dancer and choreographer, anthropologist, author, and civil rights activist who abandoned Broadway decades ago to teach culture in one of America's poorest cities, has died. Miss Dunham died Sunday at the Manhattan assisted-living facility where she lived, said Charlotte Ottley, the executive liaison for the organization whose task is to preserve her artistic estate. The cause of death was not immediately clear. Miss Dunham is perhaps best known for bringing African and Caribbean influences into 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,' " she later wrote. "We just showed it." 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; she championed civil rights efforts by refusing to perform at segregated theaters. For her endeavors, Miss 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, chair of the dance department at Columbia College Chicago. "And that's not even mentioning her work in civil rights, anthropological research, and for humanity in general." After 1967, she 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 entertainer Harry Belafonte. Among the free classes offered were dance, African hair-braiding and wood carving, and conversational Creole, Spanish, French and Swahili, as well as more traditional subjects such as aesthetics and social science. Miss Dunham also offered martial-arts training in hopes of getting young, angry males off the street. Her purpose, she said, was to steer the city's residents "into something more constructive than genocide." Government cuts and a lack of private funding in the 1980s forced her to scale back her programs in East St. Louis. Despite a constant battle to pay bills, she continued to operate a children's dance workshop and a museum. Plagued by arthritis and poverty in the latter part of her life, Miss 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," Miss Dunham said at the time. During her career, she choreographed Aida for the Metropolitan Opera and musicals such as Cabin in the Sky for Broadway. She appeared in several films, including Stormy Weather and Carnival of Rhythm. Her New York studio attracted illustrious students such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, who came to learn the "Dunham Technique," which Miss 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. Actor/rapper Will Smith and 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." The daughter of an African American tailor and a French Canadian and American Indian mother who served as a school administrator in Chicago, Miss Dunham was born June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Ill. As an anthropology student at the University of Chicago in 1935, she took her first trip to Haiti on a fellowship to study Caribbean culture and dance. The experience persuaded Miss Dunham, who was paying for college by giving dance lessons, to go into dance full time. "The best career advice given to the young is: 'Find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it,' " she later said. Miss Dunham was married to theater designer John Thomas Pratt for 49 years, until his death in 1986. She is survived by a daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt, who lives in Rome.