By Arthur Jones II, Special to the AFRO
When I say I am, I don’t mean conceit, but they will never let anyone put the psych or the hype on them that because of their skin color they can’t make it.” – Arthur Mitchell (March 27, 1934-September 18, 2018)
Arthur Mitchell, the first Black male in a major ballet company and the co-founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), died September 18 at 84-years-old.
Mitchell, a trailblazing figure in Black history, joined the New York City Ballet when he was just 15 during a tumultuous time of racial segregation in America. He epitomized what it meant to break barriers and created a lane for future generations of Black dancers.
In 1969, Mitchell opened his own ballet company in his hometown of Harlem. Starting a ballet company in the sixties, especially for Black dancers, was not easy. It took a financial toll on Mitchell, who started DTH in a garage, and even shut down the company for extended periods of time due to lack of funding. Through dogged perseverance and generous donations, Mitchell was able to keep the dream alive.
He went from the handful of students in ‘69 to more than 20,000 today, inspiring a wave of talented Black ballerinas. The company expanded throughout the 80’s and 90’s while performing in several different countries, including Russia and Spain. Mitchell then started a residency program in D.C. that performed dance recitals at the Kennedy Center, opening up the company for Black children in other urban areas around the country.
One of those Black children, in 2000, knew him solely as Mr. Mitchell. This six-year-old kid from Southwest D.C. was the youngest of three boys in a beginner ballet class, but he was unique from everyone else in the dance troupe. Although there was a six decade difference in age, Mitchell and the young boy held a bond that couldn’t be broken: their names. Arthur Jones II and Arthur Mitchell. The student had the distinguished honor of sharing this title with his teacher.
Mr. Mitchell was hard on me, and mentored me like I was his own son or grandson. Perhaps it was because he didn’t want some little kid running around D.C. named Arthur who couldn’t dance, or maybe because he saw something in me that I was too young to see in myself. Mr. Mitchell placed a few kids from DTH and me in the renowned “Creole Giselle” production, featuring Carmen De Lavallade , in its return to the Kennedy Center in 2001.
Seventeen years ago Mr. Mitchell gave me the opportunity to witness and be a part of greatness and Black excellence before it was a hashtag. I learned firsthand from Mr. Mitchell what discipline, hard work and determination does for a young person’s self-esteem, and how one should carry that on throughout life.
Mr. Mitchell told Ed Bradley during a 1986 “60 Minutes” interview that “classical ballet is the strongest technical base,” and the hours of training and focus that I put into dancing helped me in many other areas in my life.
Mr. Mitchell, thank you for teaching me my technical base, and molding me into the man I am today. You are already missed.