Bethune, 66, a former New York City Ballet soloist and the founder of a Los Angeles multimedia dance and theatrical company, was struck by two vehicles and killed shortly after midnight Sunday after she apparently stopped to help an injured animal along Forest Lawn Drive in L.A.
"If she saw [the animal] moving and thought it was suffering, I know she would stop," said longtime friend Paula Woodley.
Police believe Bethune pulled her car to the side of the street to check on a small animal, later identified as a dead possum.
Bethune left her engine running and walked onto the road, then was struck by a car going in the opposite direction, said Sgt. Jeffrey Siggers of the Los Angeles Police Department's Central Traffic Division.
The impact threw her to the other side of the street, where she was run over by a second vehicle and dragged about 600 feet, Siggers said. Bethune, whose married name was Feeley, suffered severe head injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene. Police are investigating the accident.
Bethune was the artistic director and choreographer for what is now called Theatre Bethune, a nonprofit organization she founded in Los Angeles in 1980. Previously known as Bethune Theatredanse, the company has toured internationally and performed at the White House.
Bethune also founded Infinite Dreams, a participatory dance and performance outreach program for children with disabilities that is held in schools and community centers throughout Southern California and has had more than 8,000 participants.
She was inspired to start Infinite Dreams because of her own experience dealing with disabilities, including scoliosis, lymphedema and dysplastic hips.
"Zina said to me once that she realized the only time she didn't hurt was when she danced, and she felt that children faced with disabilities should have that same opportunity," said Woodley, who is on the board of directors for Theatre Bethune and Infinite Dreams.
"The challenge," Bethune told The Times in 1999, "is to let the children's creativity and musicality take them beyond where they've ever been, to let it move them in whatever ways they can move — and that's when they soar."
Infinite Dreams has been cited as an exemplary organization by the National Endowment for the Arts and has received commendations from Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton.
Bethune was born in New York City on Feb. 17, 1945.
"I was born with everything that said I wouldn't be a dancer," she told The Times in 1985. "Every surgeon who sees my X-rays says, 'You can't dance.' But I have all my life. Some doctors told me that, if I hadn't danced, I'd have been a cripple."
She started formal ballet training at age 6 at George Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York City. She later played the young leading lady, Clara, in a televised production of Ballanchine's version of "The Nutcracker."
Besides dancing with the New York City Ballet, Bethune was a guest artist with a number of international dance companies.
While dancing, she also pursued an acting career, including appearing in the 1956 Broadway musical comedy "The Most Happy Fella" when she was 11.
She costarred in the 1962-65 TV series "The Nurses" (later retitled "The Doctors and the Nurses"), starred with Harvey Keitel in Martin Scorsese's 1967 film "Who's That Knocking at My Door," was a regular on TV's "Love of Life" and took over a role in the 1989-92 Broadway production of "Grand Hotel."
Bethune is survived by her husband, Sean Feeley; and her mother, Ivy.