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50 Years of Empowerment: Dance Theatre of Harlem in Wilmington

Friday, February 1, 2019

Back in 2016, Dance Theatre of Harlem performed in Wilmington in celebration of Black History Month and the 50th anniversary of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965. Now, UNCW Presents is excited to welcome the Company back to the Wilmington dance scene for a co-presentation with Countywide CDC in celebration of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 50th anniversary 

Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement; this was year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the year that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. A year of pain and progress, 1968 was also a year that art, culture, and dance bloomed. 

Arthur Mitchell’s “impulse to start Dance Theatre of Harlem is said to have been spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.,” according to Dance Theatre of Harlem’s website. But this impulse didn’t come from nowhere. Raised in Harlem, Mitchell spent his early years training at New York City’s High School of the Performing Arts. He later earned a full ride scholarship at the School of American Ballet, and in 1955, Mitchell became the first African American principal dancer—the highest rank within a professional dance company—at the New York City Ballet. 

Dance Theatre of Harlem Wilmington DanceDuring the summer of 1968, Mitchell began teaching ballet in a remodeled garage on 152nd street to create opportunities for children across Harlem who loved to dance. This garage quickly became a haven for dancers of all colors, and Mitchell’s lessons rapidly grew in popularity. In 1969, Mitchell partnered with Karel Shook, an internationally renowned ballet master, to form the Dance Theatre of Harlem we know today.  

In an interview with Djassi DaCosta Johnson, Virginia Johnson, founding member and former principal dancer, said the aim of Dance Theatre of Harlem “was to make people aware of the fact that this beautiful art form actually belongs to and can be done by anyone. Arthur Mitchell created this space for a lot of people who had been told, ‘You can’t do this,’ to give them a chance to do what they dreamed of doing.” 

Since Dance Theatre of Harlem’s debut performance at the Guggenheim in 1971, the Company has traveled everywhere from Wilmington to Russia. After their performance in 1992 in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said, “Watching the Harlem Dance Theatre was a wonderful experience which I enjoyed immensely. I forgot the hardships that I endured all my life.”  

Virginia Johnson has been the Artistic Director for Dance Theatre of Harlem since 2012 and continues to lead the Company into its 50th year. Since the Company’s founding, Dance Theatre of Harlem has spread inclusivity in arts programming worldwide. Although the world is a much different place than it was 50 years ago, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s message of “empowerment through the arts for all” is one we can all still learn from and live by.  

Tickets for Dance Theatre of Harlem are available online or at the UNCW Arts Ticket Office Monday-Friday from 12-4 p.m. Check out full UNCW Presents schedule for more unique Wilmington events. 


-Lindsay Lake