Celebrate 40 Years of Harlem Dancing Dreams

For 40 years the Dance Theatre of Harlem has helped craft African American dancers into classically trained ballet performers.

While today, the company diversity extends beyond just African American students, the one thing that hasn't changed is the school's passion for the arts, which was instilled by co-founder Arthur Mitchell.

"When you're in the process of doing things, you never think of time," Mitchell said. "I'm a man with a mission. I'm driven."

Fulfilling a Dream

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The so-called pied piper of dance first opened the school's doors in 1969, driven, in part, by the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.

Mitchell, whose dance career already had proved naysayers wrong, headed back to his native Harlem and helped others achieve their dancing dreams.

"I said, 'Put your money where your mouth is, Mitchell, and start something in the community where I was born; and get the young people off the streets and give them a sense of purpose, focus and a sense of pride,'" Mitchell said. "So we started a school and that's how it all started."

Another reason that prompted Mitchell to start the school was a seemingly common misconception about African American dancers.

"There was a fallacy that blacks could not do classical ballet. And I kept saying, 'Who said this?' No one could tell me who said it," Mitchell said.

So he trained his dancers and instilled in them a sense of pride.

When the legend walks into a room filled with ballet dancers, he demands nothing but the best.

And the students most certainly deliver.

Ballet Beginnings

Mitchell and internationally recognized ballet teacher Karel Shook started the school as an ally of the arts. Mitchell has continued to lead the school since Shook's 1985 death.

Today, the Dance Theatre of Harlem offers extensive courses in music, dance, costuming and theater to children as young as pre-schoolers and as old as senior citizens.

But before he helped his dancers learn their first step, he glided across the stage following his own dancing dreams.

Mitchell, a trained classical ballet dancer, was one of the first African American principal dancers for the acclaimed New York City Ballet under George Balanchine.

Struggle to Survive

Mitchell's tenure at the Dance Theatre of Harlem hasn't been simple. Over the years, the company has had its setbacks.

In 2004, facing financial hardships, the company had to stop touring.

"We've never had a lot of money, but the thing is it's the belief, it's the institution," Mitchell said. "From the very first lesson you take in dance, you realize you are only going to get out of it what you put into it. That's the laws of nature."

Today, the school is working on getting back on track. Recently, the theater announced that Virginia Johnson will take the helm as artistic director.

She strives to keep the rich history and traditions of the Dance Theatre of Harlem alive.

"The thing is that in the beginning, Dance Theatre was about bringing people together," Johnson said. "The world has changed quite a bit. But we still need to bring the people together. And so, perhaps the ballets that we do will have a different emphasis. Who knows? But the point is that we bring people together through the art."

Even with the school headed in a new direction, Mitchell still has one dream left.

"I have the dream of a company called Noah's Ark, and this company will be comprised of young people from every race, class, creed or color," Mitchell said of what he wants his legacy to be. "And they will tour the world and show people, regardless of your race, class, creed or color, ethnicity [that] it's the quality of what you do that's most important."

"When you get that -- hit that stage, you must have the magic," he said.

Click here to learn more about the Dance Theatre of Harlem.