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Remembering Dance Pioneer Arthur Mitchell And The Powerful Legacy He Left Behind

Remembering Dance Pioneer Arthur Mitchell And The Powerful Legacy He Left Behind

Photo credit: Bebeto Matthews 

Arthur Mitchell, who was a dance pioneer and the co-founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, passed away of renal failure at a New York City hospital on Wednesday morning. Mitchell once said: "The myth was that because you were Black that you could not do classical dance. I proved that to be wrong." 

In his 84 years of life, he not only debunked that myth, but he blazed a trail as one of the first internationally recognized Black ballet dancers. Mitchell, who described himself as the "Jackie Robinson of ballet," started his formal dance training in New York City's High School of the Performing Arts. He went on to earn a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet and join the New York City Ballet, where he became its first Black principal dancer. 

By 1969, Mitchell founded his own dance company along with his mentor and ballet instructor, Karel Shook. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, he became inspired to create a space for the children of Harlem to study dance. The next year, the Dance Theater of Harlem opened its doors as the nation's major Black classical company. 

Misty Copeland, the first Black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, took to social media to remember Mitchell and how he paved the way for her. She wrote: 

"Thank you Mr. Mitchell for helping to change the classical ballet world for our community! Your impact will never fade. The first black principal dancer @nycballet !!! You gave me so much, through our conversations, your dancing and by simply existing as a brown body in ballet. But you were so much more than a brown body. You're an icon and hero. @dancetheatreofharlem gave black and brown children, not only a home and future, but the ability to dream. I love you with all my heart and will miss you dearly. 💔#R.I.P. #ArthurMitchell"

Dance legend and television producer Debbie Allen also expressed her condolences, writing in an Instagram post:

"The world has lost another visionary, @dancetheatreofharlem Founding Artistic Director, Arthur Mitchell. Arthur Mitchell claimed Ballet as an American Art Form. His legacy lives through all of us. We will always speak him name. Sincerest Gratitude, Debbie Allen." 

The Dance Theatre of Harlem said that Mitchell's "legacy of passion, power, and perfection will live on through each and every person he’s touched in his lifetime. We love you and we honor you!" 

Mr. Mitchell, thank you for inspiring and paving the way for generations of Black ballet dancers. Rest in power.