Arthur Mitchell was no stranger to breaking barriers.

In 1955 he became the first African American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and in 1969 he and Karel Shook co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mitchell died in 2018, but his legacy and the history-making company live on.

Nearly 50 years after its first residency at Texas Christian University, Dance Theatre of Harlem returned to campus this week.

“Dance Theatre of Harlem really started the conversation and opened up the field of classical ballet, which had been pretty exclusionary to dancers of color. And that’s a significant achievement,” Assistant Professor Keith Saunders said. “That conversation is still being had today, and that work is still being done.”

Saunders and his wife, Kellye, both work at TCU’s School for Classical & Contemporary Dance and are alumni of Dance Theatre of Harlem, or DTH.

Having the entire company in town allowed DTH to make the most of its schedule, sending members to meet with three different high school dance programs simultaneously and hosting a variety of other events, including a public dance party and panel discussion about the group’s legacy.

“There have been Black people in ballet for a good, long time, but there wasn’t space for us to perform,” DTH’s outgoing artistic director, Virginia Johnson, said during the panel. “When Arthur Mitchell created the Dance Theatre of Harlem, it wasn’t about creating a Black company. It was creating a possibility that didn’t exist anywhere else.”

The dance company is celebrating its 54th year and has seen a lot of change, Robert Garland, the company’s resident choreographer and soon-to-be artistic director, said.

“The mission hasn’t changed. I think the world around us has changed,” Garland said.

‘We’re going to get through this’

As they travel, the group makes an effort to engage with communities rather than just dropping in and out. But many of the Black radio stations and newspapers that they used to for outreach when DTH was founded are no longer around. Instead, they’ve had to find new ways to connect.

Social media is one tool that has helped them in that effort and also weather the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Company dancers were in Detroit when they got the news about impending shut downs and that they would need to fly back to New York.

Losing their ability to tour and host their upcoming gala meant that the company was staring down a loss of $2.5 million in revenue, Executive Director Anna Glass said.

“I remember just being in tears, but having to muster up the courage to say, ‘We’re going to get through this,’” she recalled.

Glass was determined that DTH not only survive, but thrive.

The company brainstormed and started putting together digital content, and people around the globe sent donations of $5 here, $100 there. 

YouTube video

One of their videos went viral, landing the dancers an appearance on “Ellen.”

Later that year, they were awarded a $10 million gift from philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett.

‘Huge to have the whole company here’

“It’s an extraordinary time to stop and reflect on the decades of impact Dance Theatre of Harlem has had on ballet, specifically,” Professor and Director at TCU’s School for Classical & Contemporary Dance Elizabeth Gillaspy said. “Gorgeous dancing, education, advocacy and commitment to community building are all hallmarks of this company and its leadership.”

Bringing in the full company, spanning dancers to artistic and administrative staff is no small feat.

“It’s a very rare opportunity … and I’m frankly very proud that we’ve been able to put it together,” Gillaspy said.

With financial support from TCU, grants and private donors, DTH’s 26-member team was able to participate in the two-day program.

“We have regular guest artist residencies where we bring in one artist, so I mean, this is huge to have the whole company here… We did host Dance Theatre of Harlem when Mr. Mitchell was alive in 1975, so there’s something beautifully full circle about it as well.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...