Fifty-five years ago, the renowned dancer and cultural historian Katherine Dunham -- then a student at the University of Chicago -- stood nervously before the board of the Rosenwald Foundation, hoping to secure a fellowship that would allow her to study the dances and customs of the Caribbean people.

When asked what course of study she hoped to pursue, Dunham stripped off her nice tweed suit to reveal a leotard and dance skirt and launched into a physical demonstration of her plans. She got the fellowship.

"The dance critic John Martin once said of me: 'I used to think she was a dual personality, but now I think she's a multiple personality,' " recalls Dunham, 74, who was in town recently for a by-invitation-only lecture series at the National Portrait Gallery. A legendary beauty, she exudes a combination of savvy and calm. Her toffee-colored skin glows, her abundant curls are swept off her face by a wide yellow headband. Myriad gold rings adorn her fingers, and a tiny jeweled crab -- her sign is Cancer -- sits at the center of her seed pearl necklace.

"It wasn't always easy making it all flow together, but eventually I saw that my dancing could be based on anthropological research and satisfied both my artistic and theatrical needs from a commercial point of view."

Throughout her career, Dunham has wedded scholarship, art and commerce. Her passion for and unique understanding of African-based movement formed the basis for her field work, her books and articles, her choreography, the formation of her technique and schools, and her humanitarian work in places as diverse as Senegal, Haiti and East St. Louis.

Yet it was her infectious performing style and finely tuned theatrical eye and ear that accounted for her great success on Broadway, in Hollywood and all around the globe. The impresario Sol Hurok insured her legs with Lloyd's of London. French photographers hid under her dressing table. In one number Dunham appeared with a bird cage on her head and a cigar in her mouth, in another with a parrot and a spider monkey on her shoulders.

Yet it wasn't always easy, especially as far as the matter of race was concerned.

"Hollywood could never make up its mind what it wanted out of American black people," declares Dunham, who choreographed and performed in such films as "Stormy Weather" and "Cabin in the Sky." "So many times I was called into producers' offices and they'd say: 'Why don't you get some good-looking girls in your company? Do they have to be so dark?' And I'd get very indignant and reply: 'You're not seeing what we are; you're just seeing what you want to make of us.' That's why I never really stayed there for any length of time."

Never afraid to express her viewpoints and always a fighter in the struggle for racial equality, Dunham left the conventional dance world in 1967 to live and work in East St. Louis, Ill., one of the most depressed and troubled cities in the Midwest.

"I always say that my first period of learning was at the University of Chicago, my second was the world, and my third was East St. Louis," she explains. "I was then artist in residence at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and my archives had been sent there. The president of the university suggested that I see if there was anything I could do about the youths in East St. Louis, their unrest, and the beginnings of genocide through the use of cultural arts.

"It was right in the heart of the militant period. The whole town was in flames." On her first night there, Dunham and her assistant watched the police round up young black men and drag them in as suspects. In protest, the two women marched down to the station, lit into the officers and wound up in a jail cell themselves.

But that was only the beginning. Because of her close association with violent gangs like the Warlords, she says, the FBI kept watch over her, her telephone was monitored for a decade and death threats were not uncommon. Despite these obstacles, Dunham's efforts eventually paid off with the formation of the Performing Arts Training Center, which offered unprivileged youth classes and performance opportunities in martial arts, drumming, dance and other disciplines. Today, one of the city's main attractions is the Dunham Museum and Children's School.

Dunham now divides her time between that city and her estate in Haiti, a country she simultaneously loves and worries over. ("East St. Louis and Haiti could almost be twin sisters. They're economically deprived, family oriented, and grandmothers are sort of in charge of things.")

Only a few weeks ago, she lost her husband of 49 years, the brilliant set and costume designer John Pratt, with whom she collaborated on many productions. Her pain is almost palpable, and yet she continues to read, plan and lecture. A 1983 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, she will receive this year's Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award during the American Dance Festival in June. The $25,000 prize is the largest annual award in the performing arts.

As she looks back on her career, Dunham has one major regret: She never had time to document enough of her own dances. When a reporter suggests that so many of her steps and styles seem to have been borrowed by others, Dunham nods emphatically, her eyes flashing.

"It's flattering to be somebody's model, but plagiarism I don't like. I would be very happy if people who are doing anything we have ever done would just give us the credit for it," she sighs. "But I guess that's one of the things you pay for when you've been around this long."