Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American male dancer to become a permanent member of an internationally renowned ballet company, was instrumental in the formation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mitchell made his debut in George Balanchine’s Western Symphony for the New York City Ballet in 1955. He spent 15 years with the company as a dancer. He went to Harlem after learning of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination to teach local children about dance.
Mitchell began teaching ballet to children in local Harlem schools in 1968. Classes were held in the basement of a church. He began teaching classes with the front door open so that passers-could observe the students at work. He began with 30 students enrolled, but the end of the summer, the school had grown to 400 students. The Dance Theatre of Harlem became a school and ballet company in 1969.
Students mostly toured locally in 1969, giving lectures and demonstrations. Mitchell put together a troupe of 20 professional dancers not long after, and they debuted in a 1971 festival in Spoleto, Italy. The fledgling company enjoyed its first official season in New York City after two European tours and three national tours.
They were the first black ballet company to perform in London’s prestigious Covent Garden in 1981. They performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City just a year later. They are well-known for performing classic ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake, as well as choreographed George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Mitchell.
Virginia Johnson, Stephanie Baxter, Eddie Shellman, Mel Tomlinson, Alicia Graf, and Donald Williams are among the notable dancers who have performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem. The Dance Theatre of Harlem became a pioneering dance company as a result of their efforts. They demonstrated to the rest of the world that African-American dancers could perform classical ballet as well as any other company in the world.
The school of the Dance Theatre of Harlem not only prepares dancers for the company, but also invites recreational young dancers to learn the art. Dance classes are divided into three categories: community, pre-professional, and professional. Ballet, tap, jazz, modern, African dance, Irish step dancing, gymnastics, karate, and even tai chi are just some of the styles available. Other important classes offered to students include music theory and dance history.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem offers a variety of community outreach programs to educate the public about dance. Dancing Through Barriers® is one such program. It offers local schools and communities a variety of activities, workshops, and demonstrations. The company hopes to instill a passion for the performing arts in children of all ethnic backgrounds.
The school temporarily closed its doors in 2004 due to financial difficulties, and the company laid off about 44 dancers. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of concerned ballet fans all over the world, the school reopened six weeks later. The company and school were resurrected thanks to donations from individuals, the government, corporations, and foundations.