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Dance Theatre of Harlem — a beacon for dancers of color, topnotch ballet

Dance Theatre of Harlem company members Crystal Serrano, Anthony Santos and Amanda Smith in "Harlem On My Mind." Photo by Rachel Neville.

By Maddie Hayden

duPont Manual High School, Class of 2021

Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerina Alicia Mae Holloway had a nagging feeling her world of ballet lacked diversity when she was a child.

“Growing up in West Virginia, there was one other black girl that went to my studio, and I was at two studios at the time,” she said.

The picture was different last Friday when Holloway was onstage with Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) at The Kentucky Center for the Arts.

The company, founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., has among its goals “to present a ballet company African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.” These classically-trained ballet dancers, including Holloway, also come from various different backgrounds.

Dance Theatre of Harlem company artist Alicia Mae Holloway. Photo by François Rousseau.

Dance Theatre of Harlem company artist Alicia Mae Holloway. Photo by François Rousseau.

Holloway began taking classes at Morgantown Dance Studio in 2007 and then went on to training at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts before attending the School of American Ballet. These programs helped Holloway develop her dance skills and provided vital training to help her get where she is today.

“I never got the opportunity to see a person of color perform that I could really look up too,” Holloway recalled.

The goal: Getting black dancers onstage: As journalist Zita Allen wrote in her essay for the exhibit “Arthur Mitchell: Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer” presented by The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery and Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the DTH founder tells us, “There were always black classical dancers in America- they just never got on stage.”

African-American ballet dancers had the choice to perform either in smaller, all-black companies or be guests with ones that had all-white dancers. Those who managed to overcome these barriers made a big impact in the ballet world.

Allen’s essay also quotes a 1977 survey by a New York Times writer that found only 23 black dancers were members of 495 companies throughout the U.S. The limited diversity in ballet is smaller in the present day, but Dance Theatre of Harlem keeps trying to end that gap once and for all.

Putting DTH and black dancers on The Kentucky Center's stage | When DTH visited Louisville in early November, it traveled across the city bringing inspiration to those young students of color and others. It traveled to the Youth Performing Arts School and Lincoln Elementary, among other places. The company performed for an audience of school children the same Friday of its Nov. 9 evening performance at The Kentucky Center.

The evening of the company’s packed show, which attracted everyone from ballet fans to aspiring ballerinas. One audience member was 9-year-old Marissa Paige, a young African American girl.

“When I grow up I want to be a dancer, a singer, a ballerina, and an actress,” she said after she first saw the company perform.

No doubt, the dancers who looked like her helped her understand that she could achieve those dreams. The pieces illustrated that ballet is not just all caucasian girls in tiaras and tutus.

The evening’s performance of “Harlem On My Mind” by Darrell Grand Moultrie includes parts with several pairs of dancers. They have different skin colors and skin types (including Holloway) and are accompanied by uplifting, jazz-like music that is not like traditional ballet music. The movement of the dancers is awe-inspiring. The way the men lift the women high in the air and spin them around and around and around, it’s a wonder they don’t get dizzy.

In “Harlem On My Mind” and other pieces, minority dancers often express their true self in ways many ballet companies might not allow. They wear their hair in its natural form, and choreographers’ works illustrate struggles that can make an emotional connection with the audience.

The struggle of getting to stage starts in the dance studio | Struggle is a topic many African-American dancers from Louisville talked about facing when trying to make it in the dance world. They also talked about how DTH, as well as special teachers, inspired them and other dancers to realize their potential.

Brandon Ragland, a Louisville Ballet dancer and Louisville Ballet School instructor, recalled as a child going to big-name summer dance programs.

“Maybe you should look into contemporary a little bit more,” he said some instructors there told him.

When some pushed him away from ballet as a career path, he came back 10 times more dedicated to proving them wrong. With support from his first dance teacher, who was African-American, he realized that he could make it in the dance world.

“She made sure to encourage me and said ‘If this is something you want to do you can do it,’” Ragland said.

Ragland realizes many children of color don’t have someone like his teacher to look up to.

He added that money is often a barrier to their learning. Most ballet dancers start training from a very young age and continue until they go professional. A Time magazine article from August 2015 discussed how raising a classical ballet dancer could cost around $100,000 for over 13 years.

“The expense is a barrier and ballets got this elitism attached to it, which is really unfortunate because I think it keeps a lot of young dancers out of the genre,” explained Louisville’s Portia White.

White has worked in arts education for more than 30 years, including roles as a dance instructor and administrator with The Kentucky Center, Louisville Ballet and Louisville Metro Parks.

Harlina Trumbo, artistic director of La’Nita Rocknettes School of Dance and a teacher at Lincoln Elementary, reflected on growing up as a young African-American ballet dancer in Louisville and remembers the prejudice she and others faced because of skin color and body type.

She talked about how, in the 1970s and ‘80s, some students from La’Nita Rocknettes School of Dancers were not accepted into the Youth Performing Arts School because their “booty and chest was too big to be on pointe.” These struggles propelled her to continue to teach at the dance school.

Since the 1970’s things have changed at the Youth Performing Arts School, Last week, YPAS hosted DTH when its dancers came to teach a class of dance majors. The visit is a crucial part of the companies mission to provide arts education to young students all over the U.S. In some ways, it is an extension of the world-class dance school in Harlem.



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