Harlem Ballet Group Perseveres

Some Said Blacks Couldn't Dance Ballet

The Dance Theatre of Harlem recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with a series of critically acclaimed sold-out performances here in New York City.

Correspondent Ed Bradley first profiled Arthur Mitchell in 1986, while the company was on a European tour. This year Bradley revisited the company founder.

Ballet Company Flourishes in Harlem size>

When Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 few people of color were dancing classical ballet and even fewer teaching it.

Mitchell broke barriers, not just in the United States, but around the world. His group quieted critics who said that while blacks may have a reputation for dancing, they don't have the bodies or the discipline for ballet.

As Mitchell started his career with an audition at the High School for the Performing Arts, he only knew how to copy Fred Astaire. He was 15.

Some people, as Mitchell remembers in 1986, did not encourage him: "Friends, people that you know in the business, they kept saying, 'Why are you studying ballet? There will never be a black man in the ballet until the year 2000.' "

"And the minute they told me I could not become a dancer, that's when that something inside me said, 'Oh, really? I'll show you.'"

Mitchell won a place at the New York City Ballet and, with the encouragement of director George Balanchine, he became one of its principal dancers.

Then, in 1968, on the verge of leaving for Brazil to help establish a national ballet company there, he heard the news that would change the direction of his life.

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed in a downtown Memphis hotel.

When he heard the news, Mitchell started crying. He decided that somehow, he had to live up to King's legacy. Since he was a dancer, he decided to do this via dance.

Arthur Mitchell in 1986
Mitchell started in Harlem with a handful of students in a converted garage. Sixteen years later, he's still there, but now in a building that houses the company and school of 350 students.

Dance Theatre tours not just for recognition, but to stay alive. Over half its annual budget of $6 million is earned through ticket sales. Apart from a small federal grant, the rest comes from fund raising.

The endless need to find backers takes Mitchell away from teaching. This bothers him.

"I get tired of begging," he says. "'May I have a dollar? May have five dollars? May I have this? May I have that?'"

"And then the fact that it's in Harlem,...run by a black man who hasn't gone to college," he says.

"But I know my ABCs. I mean, I put the time, the hours in. I get the best consultants; I pick their heads to do it right. But we can't even get insurance," Mitchell adds.

Mitchell's tight budget leaves no room for temperament in his company. And he runs a tight ship. He calls himself a "benevolent dictator."

Many of the young dancers complain privately, but they accept Mitchell's manner, hoping that he can do for them what he's done for Virginia Johnson, who comes the closest to being a star in a company without stars. She's been with him almost from the beginning.

"The beautiful thing about being with this company," says Johnson, "is that I had a dream of being a ballerina and an idea of what that meant, and he has given me a reality to it."

"He has changed me from being a dreaming little girl into a woman who is dancing," she says.

Mitchell not only changes little girls into dancers; he also tries to transform dancers into lawyers, doctors and teachers, encouraging company members to study for a future career while dancing.

With the group's success, some have suggested that Mitchell move it downtown. But Mitchell is not moving: "If I can make Dance Theatre of Harlem work here in Harlem, then it could happen in Watts."

"It could happen in Chicago," he continues. "It could happen in Georgia. It could happen in London. It could happen anywhere in any major urban center."

1999 Update

The Dance Theatre has made ballet history but also has had a few stumbles.

Since 1986, Mitchell's desire to introduce inner-city children to the arts has resulted in Dancing Through Barriers, a program that now reaches some 40,000 kids a year in cities from New York to Miami to London.

Today hundreds of Dance Theatre of Harlem graduates teach at ballet schools across America. Fourteen have even opened their own schools, both here and in Europe. Mitchell's ballet company tours the world, but home is still Harlem.

Recently Mitchell turned 65. He is still going strong.

But the road hasn't been easy. Federal funding has dried up and – as with all the arts - dance has been hit hard.

Dance Theatre began touring less and less. By 1990 money was so tight that Mitchell was forced to shut down the company for nearly six months.

In 1997 he thought the company might fold when his dancers went out on strike for three weeks, Mitchell says.

"It was like having your children turn against you," he says. "But now, in hindsight, it's part of a growing process. It's like sometime you've got to throw the children out of the nest, and they've learned how to fly."

Today Dance Theatre is a smaller but tronger company. Mitchell's school, which in 1986 had just 350 students, now enrolls more than a thousand each year.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem teaches ballet to more than 1,000 students.
Johnson retired two years ago to pursue a career in journalism. But she remains attached to the company she danced with for 27 years. "I will always be connected to Dance Theatre of Harlem," she says.

"This is my roots," Johnson adds.

Johnson's dance partner in 1986 was Eddie Shellman. After 23 years with the company, Shellman retired two years ago. With his wife Endalyn, another Dance Theatre graduate, he opened his own ballet school in New Jersey.

"I'd always wanted to have my own school," Shellman says. "My own company. The exact same thing Mr. Mitchell had, and he was like a role model for me. And a father figure also."

"And [he] had helped me make my decision to start my own school. I have a set style. So it's starting, you know, that Arthur Mitchellism," Shellman adds.

Is Mitchell as autocratic as he was in 1986? He says he's not. "I'm a little more gentlemanly about it now. I don't go [for] the jugular now," he says.

But he still admits that he is very tough.

In 1993 when Mitchell was a John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts honoree, some of the dancers he had helped over the years had a chance to say thank-you.

"I was a dance major at [New York University] when I heard that Arthur Mitchell was teaching ballet in Harlem on Saturdays," Johnson said then.

"I went up there and it changed my life. There was so much to do, so much to prove. We'd all been turned down, told that there was no place for us," she had said. "He gave us our dream, a chance to be measured by our movement and grace and not by the color of our skin."

Mitchell was touched: "When I sat there and I looked at those kids, and they did that, I was so proud. I almost started crying," he recalls.

"But I said, 'No, hold on, Mitchell.' But no matter how tough you think you are, in the final analysis, when you come to situations like that, to be accepted, to be honored by your peers," he says, "you get a wonderful sense of 'Yes. I am.'"

Broadcast produced by Barbara Dury; site produced by David Kohn;