What I've learned + Arthur Mitchell
Last week, I knew I would receive news. There was a burning inclination in my being that I would receive word of something I had been working on. I had several ideas of what that word would be, however never in a million years did I think the word would be the news of the passing of such a giant and clearly not something I had been “working” on.
Mr. Arthur Mitchell, co-founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem has moved on in his existence to join the realm of the ancestors. A cultural giant who has left a significant mark on my life and the lives of millions of other dancers, choreographers, dance aficionados, dance historians, cultural enthusiasts, and lovers of the art of ballet.
A visionary, Mr. Mitchell brought his talent and gifts back home to Harlem after an illustrious career as Balanchine’s muse at the New York City Ballet. The first African American male dancer the for famed company, Mr. Mitchell proved ballet could be performed by Black bodies. This critical fact was ever important because it has been argued that black dancers are not suitable to perform classical dance.
Realizing the importance of legacy, and the desire to change community of Harlem by example, Arthur and co-founder Karel Shook, founded The Dance Theatre of Harlem. A legacy greater than themselves, a history that has changed lives and a journey that will truly never end. As a young dancer, I began my career in the walls of DTH. And Mr. Mitchell gave me so much. Mr. Mitchell taught me the importance of my BLACKNESS and that being Black was not a deficit but a right to pride, an exacting feature that ordained us unique and qualified to do all that our white counterparts could do. He taught us to be hard working and strong. He gave me memories of my first pointe class, the act of spray painting my ballet and pointe shoes brown to match my skin color. He gave me my first Gala, my first company class. He gave me the terrifying feeling of walking up to the 3rd floor; where his office was, and the knowing of I and my peers needed to be on our best behavior or he would come out and give us a stern talking to. He gave me the indelible memory of watching the first company depart for Moscow. The company jackets they wore, the 45 minute standing ovation the company received there, and the knowledge of knowing no one had ever taken a Black dance company to Russia before. He gave us Firebird reimagined and DOUGLA by none other than Geoffrey Holder. He gave me Aaron Davis Hall and Open House Sundays and ballet bar and tap class and black unitards, and fleshtone tights. He gave me scholarships because money shouldn’t be the thing that keeps students away from the arts. He gave me a childhood that otherwise could have been one of street life because that's what you did in Harlem in the 80's. He gave it all. A true genius with a giant heart and legacy that has been left behind.
In a world of social media, immediate digital gratification it is hard to carve a place and space of your own. But with pioneers like this leaving for the land of the afterlife — it is an imperative must.
Today’s word is Legacy, what will you leave behind?