Last Wednesday, Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder and ballet pioneer Arthur Mitchell died. He was 84 years old and, though vibrant and tenacious as ever, this past year the toll that illness and age were taking on him was visible.
In October when he hosted “An Informal Performance on the Art of Dance” to celebrate the donation of his archives to Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the upcoming Wallach Art Gallery Exhibition, he shared that his recent hip surgery left him requiring a shoe with a lift. He acknowledged his “altered state” with panache, that side-eyed smirk catching the light with a cheek bone, and ending with a chuckle that broadened to a dazzling open-mouthed smile.
Mr. Mitchell’s acute awareness of his pulchritude and charm, and the adroit manner in which he wielded them, have always been key factors of his influence.
Ever the showman, he introduced each piece, being quintessential “Arthur Mitchell”: inspiring, anecdotal, highly-praising yet sometimes throwing shade as he delivered witty commentary that made the audience laugh, reflect and shake our heads in awe—of him. He was in his glory.
Mitchell leading a rehearsal at DTH. Photo by Marbeth, courtesy DM Archives
I joined his company in 1989, but I first encountered Arthur Mitchell when I was 8 years old. Dance Theatre of Harlem was in Philadelphia with a mixed bill program called “Doin’ It.” The second act opened with a ballet barre featuring 12 local ballet students—including me.
I was in awe. For so long, I had been the only black girl in my classes both at Baldwin Academy for Girls and Pennsylvania Ballet. I could hardly believe that there were other black people who did ballet and just as well as the company dancers I had been idolizing. Mr. Mitchell was so loud and grand. I had never seen the likes of him. He was larger than life, like a superhero. Today I would say that he seemed like the Black Panther—invincible, impenetrable, immortal.
Arthur Mitchel coaching DTH dancers. Photo by Sigrid Estrada, courtesy DM Archives
But it was within his humanness that the complexity and contradiction of Arthur Mitchell was found. A black man born and raised in Harlem, coming of age in 1950s America, he would become the first permanent black principal of New York City Ballet, and the co-founder of the first black ballet company in the world.
He almost single-handedly inspired and gave opportunities to thousands of ballet dancers of color, showing the world that indeed, “Yes we can” and just as well—if not better than most—and with a little Harlem flair.
He showed young brown dancers not only how to traverse the world, but how to navigate in it when it was hostile to their presence. “Stand up straight, chest up, head up, eyes up” were not just concepts in ballet, but something that he taught dancers to take out beyond the streets of Harlem. He taught us, “You represent something larger than yourself”: DTH, our parents, our city, our country, our race. And he made us proud to own all of them.
Arthur Mitchell in a movement from George Balanchine’s Agon. Photo courtesy DM Archives.
He was a true product of his era: the Black Power movement of the ’60s, a time when blacks were “Beautiful” and making breakthroughs. His friend circle included pop star Harry Belafonte, opera singer Jessye Norman and actress Cicely Tyson. It was a time when newly-affluent blacks were testing the boundaries, balancing success, fame and influence with social justice. The civil rights movement was cresting just as they were, and the architects understood the importance of aesthetics. By protesting in their Sunday best, the movement visually rebuked the stereotypes that criminalized the black body in America. Mr. Mitchell was a master of presentation in appearance, speech and comportment, and he insisted in the same for his students, dancers and employees.
The manner in which he doled out lessons about comportment, hair, make-up, the company you kept, and even your sexuality ranged from courtly to crass: “Miss, you need to put some lipstick on—you can’t dance beautifully if you don’t look and feeeel beautiful”; “Don’t be precious dear…I don’t care who you sleep with, but I want to see men on stage.”
He could use your personal information to illustrate a point; he loved to tell you what your problem was. I remember being 12 years old in my first DTH summer intensive, in Homer Bryant’s partnering class, and as Mister (as he was affectionately referred to) was wont to do, he hijacked the class and began teaching. He said to me, “Philadelphia, ah I see, I see. Your problem is you want to be in charge, you’re trying to lead, you’re too bossy. I remember when I saw you in Philadelphia and you told your father,” he put his hand on his hip, ” ‘I’m going to New York,’ and I said well look at this…”
Although he was not always wrong in some of his assessments and critiques, it was always through his lens of cultural neutrality. There was little space for being an individual. He was a student of the respectability politics. Mr. Mitchell bore no markings of his Harlem zip code. His clear diction was that of a prep school student, his attire was tailored and tidy, his hair always neatly groomed. He knew the power and privilege of presenting as a “non-threatening negro” to whites to gain access and support. Then, through art, he knew he could break barriers and change minds. He was the empirical evidence that this worked and it was his mission to mold us in his image.
His Dance Theatre of Harlem was like a stealth artistic army fighting for social justice. Our weapons were ballet, elegance and class.
Mitchell was known to hijack other teacher’s classes when he wanted to give a lesson. Photo courtesy DM Archives
For most who have been in the DTH trenches, we had complicated relationships with the man who influenced, inspired, encouraged us and to whom owe our careers. Like many artistic directors, Mr. Mitchell was a father figure. As a parent, he was hard on us—and often most brutal on the ones he deemed most talented. Black parents discipline their children with a heavy hand because the world is harsher and our consequences are not the same.
I would not be divulging a secret when I state that, amongst many things, Mr. Mitchell was a difficult man. He was old-school “break you down to build you up,” if could people hang in there for the “build you up” part. For some, the faint marks of nicks and cuts are just ironic stories; for others, the wounds go deep and decades later are still too sensitive to touch.
These lessons he taught us enabled us not only to trip the lights fantastic but to move through the world with the confidence, assurance and an unflappable sense of self, knowing we are worthy, and yet clear about the the ugly reality of racism.
But as with any great education, it came with a cost. If you could not, or would not capitulate, there was a price to pay. Those who were independent thinkers, too flamboyant or defiant, he would try to break. I was one of those, untameable. I came into this world with a fully-formed sense of self, and could not be told who or what I was. I was raised with the knowledge that I have a voice and was encouraged to use it.
I remember once in a tech rehearsal for Serenade, the big diagonal before the corps runs off was not right. After repeating it, Mr Mitchell determined that it was my fault. The god mike boomed: “That’s the problem: She’s looking at the downstage girl when you should be watching the upstage girl.” The week before, Victoria Simon from The Balanchine Trust had expressly said to use the downstage girl as your guide. I was pissed. I moved forward and began to tell him this when I felt hands on me pulling me back. I felt all the eye of the elders silently urging me not to do it. “Let it go,” I heard. It was a long time before I learned to manage that defiant streak.
Privately, Mr. Mitchell greatly respected and admired the untamable.
Years later, Mr. Mitchell wanted me to dance for the company’s 30th anniversary. I met with him in his office, and we had a heart-to-heart. I shared how he had damaged my spirit, and he was shocked that I was still hurt. He told me he treated me harshly because he was mad at me for not understanding my talent. He thought I didn’t take it seriously. I told him, “You should have asked me, not assumed you knew me. It was your responsibility to show me, teach me.” He didn’t refute it; he knew I was right. The truth is, I scared him. He didn’t know what to do with or how to handle me.
Mitchell backstage. Photo by Elena Seibert, courtesy DM Archives
Over the years, I have been able to sift through my memories of and emotions for Mr. Mitchell. When I’m teaching, I giggle internally when I hear him come out of my mouth or when I teach a Mr. Mitchell classic, like the port de bras that opens from fifth en haut: “give” (to the audience), “take” (turn your head away as you close en bas), and “show” (snap our head out over the shoulder, chest high, eyes bright, “Zah!”).
I even made my level 5 girls at The Ailey School wear red lipstick; that is how people identified “Ms. Howard’s girls.” He’s in there.
Mr. Mitchell’s flame burned so brightly that it illuminated the world and cast all who fell beneath it in a most becoming light. People were drawn to him, to the iridescent glow. Many bear scars for having touched the sun, but in doing so were transformed by it, rose from those ashes and were made better for it. You will find precious few who will do not revere, respect and dare I say love him.
The DTH family grieves not just the loss of the man who helped make us, but also what he represented to us. He gave us a place to be somebody. The possibility, the hope, the opportunity, the courage, the audacity, the confidence, the pride. Another lesson Mr. Mitchell taught us was how to laugh, together and at ourselves. He had a wicked sense of humor, and there was nothing better than his thundering laugh.
Mourning is messy business, but we will do it in true DTH fashion, which includes elegance, class and zah! Let us sally forth as we were taught so well. He Gave, we Took, and now let us SHOW.
When the news of Mister’s passing broke, the outpouring on social media was overwhelming and showed the breadth and scope of Mr. Mitchell’s influence. We have culled a small sample of the honorings below:
He was very handsome and had an elegance about him. It was his signature, he put that on his dancers was in his company. He was one of his generation.
—Delores Browne, New York Negro Ballet
“You are not a line, not a phrase, not a paragraph, not a page…but a chapter in history.” A phrase spoken to the dancers and told by Arthur Mitchell to Charlie Rose after the tour to South Africa.
This man changed my life. Literally. I am who I am today, for the most part, because of his investment in me. He gave us the world through dance and encouraged us to do our part to make it a better place. There are no words to express the love and gratitude I have for Arthur Mitchell. Rest in peace dear Teacher, Mentor, Father. Thank you, thank you, thank you and God bless you.
—Donald Williams, former principal dancer, DTH
I am still trying to come to terms with losing the man who pushed me beyond my limits, which caused so many tears but lead me to become my best self. He became a Father figure to me not only in dance but my life. We met when I was just twelve years old and stayed connected throughout my dance career. We would touch base but when I was thinking about leaving ballet he convinced me to leave another company and to join DTH. I was so unsure but I took the chance. He was constantly a part of my life, always demanding me to step up and never allowing me to fall short … omg did he test me! I have so many truly beautiful moments in my life with Mr. M but my most cherished moment is when he stood in as the patriarch at my wedding. Thank you Mr. Mitchell for all you have done for ballet dancers of color and your legacy will continue, for you taught all your children well. I am already missing you so much !! I need to argue with you about ballet and life!! I love Mr. M!
—Andrea Long Naidu, former DTH principal dancer
Arthur Mitchell saw something in me that at the time I didn’t see in myself. I hadn’t yet known who I was as a dancer, and he helped to pull out parts of me that were raw in an effort to groom and polish my neo-classical dance. I attribute so much of my success in my professional dancing career to the time I spent at Dance Theatre of Harlem under his tutelage. I learned to embrace my brown tights and pointe shoes, my dance in my brown skin, and honoring those who blazed the trail before me. “You are representing something larger than yourself” was always a constant reminder. “Give, Take, Show!” —Mr. M.
—Naimah Kisoki, former DTH dancer
I just wanted to share a quick and true story. When I first started taking ballet classes I absolutely hated wearing tights and dance belts. Most of the time I simply refused. One day my ballet teacher Ms. Munez brought in this iconic picture of Mr. Mitchell in tights and said, “I want you to dress like this.” From that moment on, this was my ballet outfit. Rest In Peace, Arthur Mitchell.
—Robert Battle, artistic director, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
The reason I am a ballerina is because of Arthur Mitchell. He found me when I was 14 years old (the year I started ballet), at the time I was really discouraged, and I didn’t see any potential. Mr. Mitchell invited me to NYC for my first summer intensive and CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER. He is THE reason I am still dancing. I didn’t know that a few weeks ago would be my last time working with him and being coached by him. I can’t even express how devastated I am. I feel honored that you invited me to come and rehearse with you. Thank you for changing the way people think about who gets to do ballet and creating an opportunity for a dancer like me. Thank you for checking on me now and then. Thank you for encouraging me and making me believe that I am good enough and that I should be doing more. That I have a place in this crazy ballet world. Rest In Peace. I wish I had more time with you.
—Nardia Boodoo, dancer, The Washington Ballet
To Arthur Mitchell, Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arturo, my heart is aching. You, my Mentor, my Brother, my Friend. I just don’t know what to say…,
Siempre, tu Taniasita. RIP.
Arturo, me duele el corazón. Tu, mi
Mentor, mi Hermano, mi Amigo. No se que decir…, Siempre, tu Taniasita. En Paz Descanses.
To Arthur Mitchell, Founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Arturo, my heart is aching. You, my Mentor, my Brother, my Friend. I just don’t know what to say…,
Always, your taniasita. RIP.
Arturo, my heart hurts. You, my
Mentor, my brother, my friend. I don’t know what to say…, always, your Taniasita.
—Tania J. Leon, conductor
Arthur Mitchell saw in me what I could be. He refined me and helped to shape the vision and direction for my career even the decision to accept my current position.
This is such a painful loss. He meant the world to me.
His last question to me sitting in his apartment this past summer was, “So now that you’re at this point, what are you going to do?”
He knew the answer, he just wanted to be sure that I knew I was ready.
—Charmaine Hunter, former DTH principal dancer
Today, I am overwhelmed by the loss of Arthur Mitchell and what he meant to me. So hard to put my feeling into words. I have started a list of the opportunities he provided to me and the thousands of people he touched. Please add to it!
Arthur Mitchell gave me the opportunity to:
Fulfill my dreams
Dance around the world
Meet the most amazing people
Work with beautiful and brilliantly talented artists
Create high art for the world to see
With the greatest choreographers in the world
To work with dance legends
To have lifelong friends
To push my personal limits
To be fearless
Relentless in the pursuit of perfection
To see who I am
What my strengths are
And my weaknesses
To be classically American
With Passion Power and Perfection
To give take show
With a sense of I am.
To represent something much larger than myself
To be a Firebird a Swan, a Princess and a Maiden
To turn on a dime
Hop on toe
Spread my wings
To use my third finger in more ways than one
To use the arts to ignite the mind
To build an exhibition, and tour with it for 9 years
To share the legacy of DTH
To manage one of the largest dance archives in the U.S.
—Judy Tyrus, former DTH principal dancer/museum curator
The man that said I could and would dance professionally because I’m an Aries and born the day before him. 🤣 I’m so grateful to have had studio time with Mr. Mitchell, to witness his contagious smile, and perform his ballets. Thank you, Mr. Mitchell for teaching me one of the biggest lessons in my career, one that I use as a daily mantra. “Just remember, you’re representing something larger than yourself.” 💜🙏🏾
—Raven Barkley, Charlotte Ballet
An inspiration to the world and a force to be reckoned with. What a phenomenal life lived. This highly dignified man gave me my first job in NYC 17 years ago and taught me what it was to represent something enormous. Thank you for letting a loudmouth non-dancing broad be part of your company and be enveloped by the family you created. You are forever part of my story, Mister.
—Liz Magnuson England, former DTH general manager
To say that this man transformed my life would be saying too little. Mister, you lit a flame inside of me that will never extinguish. Never have I ever wanted to work harder, be better, quicker, more alert, more captivating, than I did for you. I feel so blessed to be a part of the legacy you created. Thanks for all the joy and all the pain.
—Dionne Dadrinelle Figgins, former DTH dancer
Sitting in the studio before my class was about to start I get a call from my friend and colleague Kevin Thomas that Arthur Mitchell has passed away. So many different emotions hit me all at once, but I never expected to feel as if I lost my father!! Arthur Mitchell was a Hard task master and demanded Perfection from us not I only in The Studio and Stage, but in Life as well!! He would say, “You are representing something bigger/larger than yourself” so act accordingly! At times I hated and loved him but always respected him, and never forgot what he taught me. Thank you, Maestro, for shaping who I am today, not just as an Artist but as a Man. Rest in Paradise, Mr. Mitchell. One love and blessings always.
—Mark Burns, former DTH dancer
I started working in the business in 1991 as an apprentice at a sound shop in Mt. Vernon. In 1997 someone at the sound shop told me they were looking for a sound man at DTH to go on tour. I spent 8 years with DTH and loved every second. Mister showed me that Brown people can do this too in all aspects, from being on stage to behind the scenes. Just last night at an opening night party for Hamilton here in Boston, a couple of the cast members were dancing to some music but adding ballet to an R&B song, I ran over and told them “hi, hi, chin up…ahhhh thank you.” We laughed and they asked how do you know about chin up? I told them Arthur Mitchell would tell the dancers this all the time. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity that you gave me, Mr. Mitchell.
—Anthony Jones, former sound technician for DTH
The first time I had seen or heard of DTH was in 1974. I had been taking ballet at the Houston Ballet Academy for 2 years and was ready to quit. I didn’t feel like it was for me. Once I saw an African-American ballerina for the first time, I realized I hadn’t seen one. Arthur Mitchell and DTH birthed dreams. Seeing the ballerina I looked up to all my years dancing, Virginia Johnson, gave me the connection to become a ballerina! It changed my life forever. I had to dance at that point, and the Firebird was my goal! I got to wear brown tights in the 1980s because DTH did and Ben Stevenson acknowledged the importance of it!!
—Lauren Anderson, former Houston Ballet principal dancer
When Mr. Mitchell would coach me, he would say, “Baxter you that boy from Texas, I like you…I see show business is in your blood…see you want to learn everything, the business and the stage.” He taught us that DTH was our home, 466 West 152nd street, being a somewhat parent to the new ones at that time. It was a way that everyone stayed disciplined. Mr. Mitchell had an eye for talent and it rubbed off on all of us. So much I can say….from Broadway to film he mentored, I was a DANCER from DTH, something about a DTH dancer you had that Mitchell Pride he would instill in everyone that crossed his path….which always kept me working in the business. I love show business. You will truly be missed. Thank you, Arthur Mitchell. May the grace of God always be with us.
—Minister Dwight Baxter
For years, while in the corps de ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I dreamed of one day being the ballerina to get Mr. Mitchell from the wings, and when that moment finally came, it was a cherished honor, a moment when all our disagreements vanished, and I was so was so proud to receive his knowing gaze.
—Tai Jimenez, former DTH principal dancer
When I think of all the remarkable things Arthur Mitchell did during a time in history when the odds were against him, it gives me reason to pause. Quite simply, Arthur Mitchell changed the world! Thinking how several companies are now creating tights, ballet shoes, and character shoes which complement and enhance the line and look of legs of dancers of color can be directly attributed to his insistence that DTH dancers dyed their tights and shoes to match their skin tones. Mr. Mitchell was an innovator, an architect, if you will, and definitely someone who followed the beat of his own drum. And he let nothing get in the way of what he wanted to achieve. I was leaving my position as the director of a well-known school in NYC after a particularly tumultuous tenure. Mr. Mitchell called and told me to come and see him. Notice I said “told” and not “asked”! He wanted to know what happened, and I told him. He looked at me with that glint in his eye and said, “You know, people had forgotten that school existed until you came along. Your work there is done! It’s time for a bigger dream. But no matter how badly you feel about all of the work you have done there and it not having been appreciated, you WILL NOT let them steal your spirit!” Needless to say, I was a puddle of tears…
—Maurice Brandon Curry, executive artistic director at Eglevsky Ballet
Arthur Mitchell’s undeniable presence, charisma, and his sparkling smile will forever remain ingrained in my memory. He was bold and brave enough to challenge and change perceptions, always with beauty and dignity. As a master coach, he poured so much into his dancers, meticulously teaching more than performance techniques, but how to represent something larger than ourselves with a sense of empowered purpose. I will miss him deeply, gratefully walking the path that he dedicated his life to pave.
—Alicia Graf Mack, former DTH dancer, director of dance at The Juilliard School
I studied at DTH as a child, and two weeks after I graduated college, I went back, and eventually Mr. Mitchell asked me to join the company. Was he easy to work for? No. Unreasonable? Often. Hurt my feelings? Constantly. But I soon learned that when he was hard on you it was because he saw something in you that he was trying to develop.
The life lessons he taught us in that studio on 152nd St, or on any given stage across the globe, influenced how I move in the world to this day. He told a group of us on our first international tour that we looked like “refugees,” which taught me to always look presentable no matter where I was going. He told us “don’t believe your press” which has allowed me to not take myself too seriously whether I’m in a season of great success or great challenges. The way I physically walk to this day, with “Zah,” is a direct result of the training I received under his tutelage. And his mantra, “You represent something greater than yourself,” instilled in all of us the ability to move through life with grace, dignity, and discipline.
And, as this picture captures, he had a wicked sense of humor, infectious laugh, and could dish the dirt with the best of them.
—Valencia Yearwood, former DTH dancer/actress
Arthur Mitchell . . . Thank you for your dream to change the world’s view of black classical ballerinas and male dancers. By letting me into your dream, you allowed me to live my dream of performing around the world before royalty and everyday folks; to learn from great ballerinas all around me; to gain lifelong friends-family; to live life with the soundtrack emanating from DTH’s live pianists; to show children here and abroad that all dreams are worthy and attainable; to embody the ideal of excellence no matter where one is; and to show that the arts are one of—if not THE—best way to reveal commonality among us all and break down barriers. I am overwhelmed with sadness, love, gratitude and awe for you. Thank you, thank you, thank you . . .
—Willow Sanchez, former DTH dancer/lawyer
Visionary, teacher, driven, inspiring, fearless, trailblazer. The impact he made in the lives he came in contact with will be remembered. The people/dancers/talent I met along the way during my time at DTH unparalleled. So thankful for Arthur Mitchell. The vision for black dancers, black ballerinas in particular must continue.
—Linda Swayze, former DTH dancer