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The Dance Theatre of Harlem was born primarily through the efforts of Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American male dancer to become a permanent member of an internationally renowned ballet company. Mitchell made his New York City Ballet debut in George Balanchine's Western Symphony in 1955. He danced with the company for 15 years. Upon hearing of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he went to Harlem so that he could teach local children about dance.
Mitchell began giving local Harlem school children ballet lessons in 1968. Classes took place in a church basement. Initially, he taught classes with the front door open so that people passing by could watch the students at work. He began with 30 enrolled students, but by the end of the summer, the school had 400 students registered. By 1969, the Dance Theatre of Harlem officially became a school and ballet company.
In 1969, students mostly toured locally, providing lecture-demonstrations. Not long afterward, Mitchell had assembled a troupe of 20 professional dancers who debuted in a 1971 festival in Spoleto, Italy. Following two tours of Europe and three national tours, the fledgling company enjoyed its first official season in New York City.
In 1981, they were the first black ballet company to dance at the prestigious Covent Garden in London. Just one year later, they danced at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Specializing in ballets choreographed by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Arthur Mitchell, they also are well-known for performing the classic ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake.
Notable dancers who have performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem include Virginia Johnson, Stephanie Baxter, Eddie Shellman, Mel Tomlinson, Alicia Graf, and Donald Williams. Their efforts helped the Dance Theatre of Harlem become a pioneering dance company. They proved to the world African-American dancers could perform classical ballet just as brilliantly as any other company throughout the world.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem's school grooms the dancers for the company but also invites recreational young dancers to learn its craft. There are three levels of dance classes: Community, Pre-professional, and Professional. Classes are offered in a variety of styles, including ballet, tap, jazz, modern, African dance, Irish step dancing, gymnastics, karate, and even tai chi. Music theory and dance history are other important classes provided to students.
The Dance Theatre of Harlem conducts several outreach programs to educate the community about dance. One program is called Dancing Through Barriers®. It provides a variety of activities, workshops, and demonstrations to local schools and communities. The company wishes to inspired children of all ethnic backgrounds to develop a love for the performing arts.
After experiencing financial difficulties, the school temporarily closed its doors in 2004, and the company laid off about 44 dancers. Fortunately, the school reopened six weeks later thanks to the efforts of concerned ballet lovers throughout the world. Fundraising from a variety of individual, government, corporate, and foundation sources helped to revive the company and school.