“It was a splintery wooden floor. We did have barres and no mirrors, and we thought we were in heaven,” recalls China White, of her early ballet training with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Promising new students were permitted to take lessons with the company and White’s aunt had found her a spot in a class. “They had this little balcony, and Cicely Tyson and Lena Horne [and] Brock Peters…they were on the board, and often they would sit and watch us.”
Also watching was Arthur Mitchell, who had made his debut with the New York City Ballet as its first African American dancer, working with director/choreographer George Balanchine who controversially paired Mitchell with a white ballerina in the pas de deux of the ballet Agon. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1969, Mitchell decided to form the Dance Theatre of Harlem as a premiere classical dance school and company for dancers of color in the community where he grew up.
“He wanted to change the lives of the young people in Harlem to give them a better chance to succeed in the world because they’d been written off,” said Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director for the company. Mitchell had taken jobs mopping floors and shining shoes and was for a time involved in street gangs before attending the High School of Performing Arts in New York and being accepted to the School of American Ballet. “And so many young people who came to Dance Theatre of Harlem became doctors and lawyers or professional dancers.”
During one of her class sessions, White remembers Mitchell calling her into the balcony and asking her, “How would you like to work for me and I pay you?” An elated White accepted the offer. “And that was how I got into the company.”
It was a transformation for White, who became a company ballerina and now is the owner and artistic director of Theatre Street Dance Academy and an instructor with the pre-professional dance program at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center. It was also a transformation for ballet.
“[Mitchell] created a place where people of color could challenge themselves in this art form and rise to the highest levels,” said Johnson. “We were part of that generation that moved the vision of what was possible in classical ballet. You saw young people of color dancing classical ballet in colored tights and pointe shoes that matched their skin tone. And you saw what ballet could look like if it was inclusive.”
Making ballet inclusive often means challenging the look of ballet: petite, floaty, and light. When Johnson had the opportunity to dance the coveted lead role in the ballet Giselle, she relied on the exacting technique, discipline, and passion that ballet cultivates.
“I’m five-foot, eight inches,” said Johnson. “I’m not your typical Giselle, the light ethereal-looking person. But Arthur Mitchell believed in me, and gave me the chance to become Giselle. It was very hard, but very wonderful because it was a challenge to make people see something they hadn’t seen before.”
Yet, dancers still combat stereotypes of appearance.
“Commonly a choreographer will ask for the costume to be nude or flesh so that the costume reflects the skin color of the dancer,” said Dustin James, a Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer. “Several times I have been put in costume that reflects someone with a fairer skin complexion than my own.”
As part of its celebration of the Harlem Renaissance, Columbus will host the Dance Theatre of Harlem this month at the Palace Theatre. The event will be even more relevant due to Mitchell’s death in September. White remembers the last visit she had with her friend and mentor this past summer.
“We had the best time ever. Two hours. We were just talking and talking. He was sick, but he was just as feisty as ever,” said White, who is now preparing to step up to “the balcony” and become a Dance Theatre of Harlem board member herself. “[The show] will be our way of celebrating and honoring his life, his legacy and the impact he had on the art of ballet that extends around the world.”
“We were part of that generation that moved the vision of what was possible in classical ballet. You saw young people of color dancing classical ballet in colored tights and pointe shoes that matched their skin tone. And you saw what ballet could look like if it was inclusive.” — Virginia Johnson.
That impact is now carried on through a new generation of dancers. White routinely brings current and past company members to work with her students at Fort Hayes. And the dancers of Dance Theater of Harlem have spread throughout regional companies across the country.
“Being a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem is a truly gratifying experience,” said James, who has now danced with several companies, including BalletMet. “Being able to spread the message of inclusivity through the art form of ballet is a true gift. Every time the company steps on the stage we show the world that anything is possible through hard work and dedication. I feel a real purpose every day I go to work.” •
11.16 @ Palace Theatre (34 W. Broad St.) capa.com