Culture and Recreation
Who founded the Dance Theater of Harlem?
The Dance Theater of Harlem, the first world-renowned African American ballet company, was founded by Arthur Mitchell (1934-), a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, along with Karel Shook (1920–1985), a dance teacher and former director of the Netherlands Ballet. The impetus for the creation of the company came on April 4, 1968, while Mitchell was waiting to board a plane from New York City to Brazil (where he was establishing that country’s first national ballet company) and he heard that Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) had been assassinated. Mitchell later said that as he sat thinking about the tragic news, he wondered to himself, “Here I am running around the world doing all these things, why not do them at home?” Mitchell had spent his youth in Harlem, and he felt he should return there to establish a school to pass on his knowledge to others and to give black dancers the opportunity to perform. The primary purpose of the school was “to promote interest in and teach young black people the art of classical ballet, modern and ethnic dance, thereby creating a much-needed self-awareness and better self-image of the students themselves.”
The idea was a success: During the 1970s and 1980s the company toured nationally and internationally, often performing to sell-out crowds and participating in prestigious events including international art festivals, a state dinner at the White House, and the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic Games.
Today, the Dance Theater of Harlem is acknowledged as one of the world’s finest ballet companies. Not only did Mitchell succeed in giving black dancers the opportunity to learn and to perform, he effectively erased color barriers in the world of dance, testimony to the universality of classical ballet.