Dance Theatre of Harlem and Why Ballet Isn't Just for White Girls
When I was a kid, like so many little girls, I took ballet lessons. Every Saturday morning I packed up my pink ballet box, slipped on my leotard and trailed my mother downtown to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for class.
I was the only black girl in the class but I didn’t care. More formidable was the ballet master barking instructions, making me jump as I moved tentatively across the polished floor. I don’t know that I was very good, but I do know that I loved to dance.
When I left ballet lessons behind, I didn’t leave behind my love of toe shoes and tulle, even though it was considered by many to be for whites girls only. After all, everybody knew black girls didn’t dance ballet.
Everybody that is except the folks at Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Michaela DePrince and Samuel Wilson in Swan Lake Act III
Image: Dance Theatre of Harlem
Founded in 1969 by former New York City Ballet dancer Arthur Mitchell and ballet master Karel Shook, DTH began as a school which taught classical ballet to kids in the neighborhood. Kids of color. It wasn’t long before the DTH performing company was born and grew into an international sensation, showcasing dancers of color performing classical ballet.
Money troubles kept DTH off the stage since 2005, but now they are back under the steady hand of Artistic Director Virginia Johnson.
A couple of weeks ago I was one of many who welcomed the Dance Theatre of Harlem back to the New York stage after an 8-year absence. Isabel Kallman, the founder of Alpha Mom is a member of the company’s board of directors and was nice enough to invite me.
Gabrielle Salvatto and Fredrick Davis in The Lark Ascending
Image: Dance Theatre of Harlem
It was an evening filled with drama, humor and the celebration of movement. Among the new crop of energetic young dancers was Gabrielle Salvatto, a Bronx native and graduate of Juilliard, who performed in The Lark Ascending, an ethereal piece choreographed by the late Alvin Ailey. She’s thrilled that DTH is back.
“There’s no other company like it,” Salvatto said.
A former prima ballerina with the company, Johnson is excited to bring ballet to a whole new generation of dancers and audiences. One way the company’s doing that is by mixing excerpts from classical ballets like Swan Lake, with modern works set to modern music like Contested Space.
A pulsating piece about modern day hook ups set to addictive rhythms that change without warning, Contested Space is the kind of dance Johnson hopes young people may see as expressing “what they are living with in their own lives.”
“It’s about making ballet alive for the 21st century,” Johnson said. “Using the language of ballet to tell a contemporary story”
But there’s lots of work to do. As recounted in a NYT article about the company, when DTH held auditions for the new company, Johnson was surprised by how few black dancers showed up.
When I was a kid a lot of my love of dance had to do with dreams of being a sugar plum fairy or a glistening white swan. As an adult I grew to appreciate the choreography, the music and the strength and grace of the dancers.
Dance is not a race thing, it’s a human thing, and excluding yourself from something so human as dance because of your race is like excluding yourself from a piece of humanity. Remember that next time someone says ballet is for white girls only.
DTH will be touring the Northeast through the end of June.