Long before I considered journalism as a career, I was an aspiring ballet dancer.
And although I started training in ballet late for the dance world—I was 14 when I took my first ballet class at the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet in South Miami— I was a quick study.
I was in my second year in the dance magnet program at Miami Northwestern High School when Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) came to Miami - not to perform but to audition dancers for its summer intensive program in New York,
“You came and you were like, ‘I got into the DTH summer program,' ” Michelle Murray, my dance teacher at the time recalls.
“I knew that you were a born ballerina,” she tells me. “You're sitting here holding this microphone, but you need to have your pointe shoes on right now. Be at the barre warming up.”
I spent two summers on full scholarship at Dance Theatre of Harlem’s ballet school. I still maintain a friendship with my ballet teachers from that time, Tyrone Brooks, now with the Tallahassee Ballet, and Robert Garland, the resident choreographer at DTH.
Mrs. Murray is now the lead dance instructor at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus. We’re sitting on the floor in her dance studio recalling our admiration and connections to Dance Theatre of Harlem. The company has not performed in South Florida for nearly 20 years, but for two days they’re back. The performances are being heralded as “The Return of the Black Ballerina.”
On this day, Virginia Johnson is teaching a master class for Mrs. Murray’s college dancers.
Johnson is a dance icon. She’s a founding ballerina of the company who would go on to start and edit Pointe Magazine—a go-to publication for all things ballet.
Before ballet class started, she talks to me about the legacy of the company. Arthur Mitchell co-founded DTH in 1969 in an act of protest. It was the first African-American classical ballet company in the United States.
“Arthur Mitchell was supposed to be in Brazil making a ballet company when Dr. [Martin Luther] King was assassinated. He decided that he didn't need to go somewhere else, that he needed to pick up the baton that Dr. King had put down about making a difference through nonviolent action,” explains Johnson.
She says taking this art form that was and is still largely today considered “white” and putting it on black bodies made a statement.
“For a long time they said to us, ‘You don't have the right body. You don't have the right look,' ” she says.
Mitchell dismissed the idea that ballet had a look or belonged to a specific culture. When he was in Miami in 2016 he met with a group of ballet dancers at Dr. Michael Krop Senior High.
When a dancer asked about the barriers that still exist for black ballerinas, this was his response:
“Don’t let anyone discourage you. ‘Well, I’m black.’ So what? Black is beautiful. They keep saying that over and over again,” said Mitchell. “I’m black. I’m a pretty black.”
Johnson performed all over the world as a principal dancer with the company. Dance Theatre of Harlem would tour in South Florida in the 70s and 80s at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Mrs. Murray, my former dance teacher, was one of the young teens in the audience who watched the company perform the ballet “Firebird.”
“I sat on the left-hand side of the theater, on the first row in the third seat. And I remember I wanted to sit close because I wanted to see the makeup so that I could go do my makeup like that too,” says Murray.
Watching Dance Theatre of Harlem stayed with her. It made her believe that black girls can do ballet and thrive in the arts. And she instills that same idea in her current and former students, like me.
“The value of me seeing 'Dougla,' the value of me seeing 'Firebird,' that took me through high school, through college, through two master's degrees and through 10 years here at this institution to this point,” she says.
Murray calls the company’s return “a full circle moment." When the ballet class with Virginia Johnson ends, the dancers cheer for her and hug her.
Mrs. Murray presents Johnson with a bouquet of red roses and bows before her.
If You Go:
When: Dance Theatre of Harlem performs, 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay. ▪
Tickets: $25-$65; $10 for students with I.D.
More Info: www.smdcac.org or 786-573-5300.
Pre-show talk on the black ballerina led by Virginia Johnson and WLRN journalist Nadege Green 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday.