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Classically American

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Originated in the wake of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the optimism and idealism of the civil rights era, Arthur Mitchell founded The Dance Theatre of Harlem. Classes were taught in a church basement in the community in which Mitchell grew up. 

Mitchell, who had been a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, designed the curriculum to give Harlem children the same opportunities he had as a teen. The Dance Theatre of Harlem grew and is now in its 42nd year.

As a partner of the 2011 Spirit and Place Festival, the Madame Walker Theatre will be honoring this year’s theme “The Body” by welcoming The Dance Theatre of Harlem ensemble Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

As a young dancer in Springfield Ill., Terry Whitt Bailey, president and CEO of the Madame Walker Theatre remembers seeing Virginia Johnson of the Harlem Dance Theatre enter the stage – she remembers seeing dancers that looked just like her.

“We didn’t have those kinds of ballet mentors back in the 60s and 70s other than Dance Theatre of Harlem,” said Whitt Bailey

Dance lovers will see this internationally acclaimed classical ballet company captivate audiences with its legendary style, passionate pieces and fluid moves.

“Our tagline is ‘Classically American.’ I love that because we are a company that is founded on the principal that if you are given the opportunity, work hard and excel, you can do anything,” said Johnson, who is now the artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Johnson was also a founding member of the company and is amazed by how the dance company has grown over time and overcome many obstacles. She knows their work is not over being that today, people still question whether Blacks should be ballet dancers. Also many dance companies across the country, including the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s touring company, are facing financial deficits that are causing them to scale back performances.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem continues to provide ballet classes, local performances, goes into public schools to present arts education and is currently grooming dancers who will be a part of their official re-launch of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s first company in 2012. Members of the ensemble company, the theater’s second company, will be performing in Indianapolis.

Johnson is eagerly anticipating the resurrection of the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s touring company because she believes that ballet adds to the richness of the performing arts and keeps the arts and creativity alive for young dancers.

Seventeen-year-old Brittany Davis also understands the power and purpose behind dance and would like to see more African-American ballet dancers.

“It’s inspiring to see a strong, trained African-American dancer,” said Davis.

Although she began dancing at age 13, Davis says she’s always had the spirit of dance within her. The Ben Davis High School junior dances with the Sacred Dance Institute and truly enjoys ballet, modern and liturgical dance because it allows her to freely express herself.

Davis is also excited to see the Dance Theatre of Harlem on stage for the first time.

“It’s so great that such a diverse dance company is coming to Indianapolis and I think it will be a very inspiring and uplifting show,” said Davis.

She and others who attend the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s performance in Indianapolis will see six different ballets that will give audiences a healthy sampling of what ballet can be.

“It’s a fun program. I’m really thrilled that we’re going to be in Indianapolis and I’m double thrilled that we’re going to be at the Walker. We hope they like it,” said Johnson.

For more information, call (317) 236-2099 or visit walkertheatre.com.


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