Written by Christen Williams.
An older gentleman flashes an exquisite white smile. He warmly shakes the hand of a young man before beginning a story that is not only obviously entertaining to him as the storyteller, but also enjoyable to his audience. The keeper of such warmth and familiarity is none other than dance legend Arthur Mitchell who made his way to Detroit to partake in the festivities surrounding the 15th Annual Sphinx Competition.
Mr. Mitchell spoke at the Inaugural Dr. Arthur L. Johnson Memorial Lecture for Sphinx finalists, laureates, family, friends, and community leaders on February 11th. But before relaying some of his words of wisdom, it is important to note Mr. Mitchell’s impact on the dance world and on African American history. He is acclaimed as the first African American to become a permanent member of a major U.S. ballet company along with becoming the co-founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem. Mr. Mitchell’s work as a performer, teacher and strong advocate for the arts during the tumultuous Civil Rights era shows his commitment to the betterment of young people through the arts as well as his willingness to provide them with the opportunity to succeed.
Despite the glowing history that we can read about today, things were not always optimistic. After being accepted into the School of American Ballet, Mr. Mitchell spoke about running into racism when going on auditions. He was told that African Americans could not perform classical ballet simply because of the extreme emphasis on perfecting the technique. He was rejected audition after audition despite his diligent practice. However, George Balanchine (famed 20th century choreographer) gave him the opportunity to dance in the New York City Ballet – a first in NYCB and African American history! After hearing this story my first thought was, “Wow! That’s amazing. He is really special.” Before I could expound on this thought within my own head, Mr. Mitchell said vehemently, “I was not the exception. I had the opportunity.”
This leads us to the main point of his lecture: It is important for us (as communities, parents, friends, etc.) to give children the opportunity to become great. Though we do not live in the same racially-charged times as those of Mr. Mitchell, we continue to deal with an economic crisis along with multiple controversial political issues at all levels of government. The arts are constantly de-emphasized in the public school system, the very place where they are supposed to begin. However, Detroit is fortunate enough to have a number of after-school and Saturday arts programs for school-aged children. Why not take advantage of one of those opportunities to give the child in your life this opportunity: To become the self-aware, confident, disciplined, and focused individual that will lead them to success in all of their endeavors. The arts have the power to do this… when they have the chance.