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Black Arts and Culture

Arthur Mitchell: Ballet Legend & Pioneer Dies At 84

Legendary choreographer Arthur Mitchell, who danced with the New York City Ballet from 1956-1968 and founded the groundbreaking and world renown Dance Theater of Harlem has died at age 84 of heart failure.

An early pioneer, dancer and choreographer Arthur Mitchell (1934-2018) was one of the most important Black dancers in the history of American ballet. Mitchell became one of the first African-American dancers to join a major ballet company in 1955, when he was hired to perform with the New York City Ballet.

Mitchell grew up in Harlem and said in an interview with the History Makers that he first learned to dance from his older sister Frances Mitchell, who taught him social dances like the jitterbug. He later auditioned to attend The High School of Performing Arts, where he had no formal training but learned the choreography to Fred Astaire’s “Stepping Out With My Baby.”

After the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mitchell started his own dance company for children in Harlem. In his interview with the History Makers, an archival collection of stories of African-Americans, he said, “People said that, ‘Arthur Mitchell’s crazy. He’s starting a ballet company in Harlem. Black people can’t do ballet.’ And so I said, ‘well that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Mitchell created the Dance Theatre of Harlem featuring dancers like Virginia Johnson and Lydia Abarca, who went on to have illustrious professional careers.

In his interview, Mitchell spoke of his students and how much they meant to him, “And the dancers, I really, really loved them. They were my kids and I would tell them how to dress, how to walk, talk, don’t get this, don’t party, you know, it was just everything. I said, ‘You are special,’ like Martha Graham says, her dancers are the angels of God. I said, “If you’re gonna be a angel you better carry yourself accordingly.”

Material credited to the History Makers.

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