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They Were There

In her new biography, The Swans of Harlem, journalist Karen Valby is witness to the testimony of five pioneering Black ballerinas intimate with the founding history of Dance Theatre of Harlem. She shares their stories from childhood dreams to international stages to obscurity within the larger dance world with a palpable urgency. The mission seems to be somewhat contradictory: on one hand, to give these icons their due before it is too late and, on the other, to restore them to their rightful place in dance history. At intervals she reprises the realization of one of these ballerinas, Sheila Rohan, that she didn’t need to be the star ballerina—“It was enough that I was there. I was there. I was there.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Sharon W. Birthwright-Greco

They were there. And it’s time now for all of us to become familiar with their names: besides Rohan, Lydia Abarca-Mitchell (no relation to Arthur Mitchell), Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Marcia Sells, and Karlya Shelton-Benjamin.

Throughout, Misty Copeland, both the legend and the person, casts a long shadow. She bookends the story, beginning as a sort of phantom foil and later, more humbly, embracing the group in the flesh, acknowledging and lamenting her prior ignorance of their contributions. Her fame and the media’s continual citing of her as the first Black prima ballerina creates a stark contrast to the paucity of recognition these women have received (particularly Abarca-Mitchell, DTH’s first star dancer). In the prologue, this reckoning is set in motion when Abarca-Mitchell’s granddaughter Hannah comes home from preschool with “her head flooded with stories about the singularity of Misty Copeland” and asks, “But what about Grandma?”

We learn quickly in those early pages that the answer to Hannah’s question has not only to do with the usual lack of documentation in the pre-digital era for this ephemeral art  but more specifically the racial bias. Valby writes:

But by the time her granddaughter came home confused and upset during Black History Month, all that was left of Abarca’s legend were a few dusty plastic bins in the basement full of yellowing photographs, stacks of old programs, and an invitation for Abarca to perform for the queen. There were profiles from People and the Washington Post that delighted in the star power of Mitchell’s young ballerina. Her face beamed from magazine covers, reviews marveled over her beauty and talent. Her exquisite profile and flower stem neck had been etched into a Revlon perfume box. Whatever remained of her spotlight years now lived in a couple of click-top bins and a shaky eleven-minute VHS recording of her breathtaking pas de deux in Balanchine’s “Bugaku.”

But as Valby takes us deeper into these braided histories, we learn of other factors. Arthur Mitchell, Dance Theatre of Harlem’s founder and first director, was insistent that the dancers serve the art and the mission of civil rights, not promote themselves. Plus, he had the spotlight trained most clearly on himself as their leader. Most likely he observed this from his years at New York City Ballet, where, though there were star dancers aplenty, Balanchine wanted the choreography to be the star. Any individual dreams of the dancers were meant to be set aside. This is painfully illustrated in McKinney-Griffith’s tale of leaving the company for “The Wiz on Broadway on what she thought were good terms, only to have Mitchell brandish her a traitor. But, though Mitchell did have an outsized ego, his ensemble ethos, which erased typical ballet ranking, also seemed to be about dispelling the myth that there could only be one exceptional Black classical dancer. Similarly, when Copeland was gaining prominence, DTH was on an indefinite hiatus, effectively dropping out of the dance conversation.

“Not having the constant reminder that we are in this art form, and we have made magic here, we were forgotten,” says Virginia Johnson, former DTH dancer and the artistic director tending the flock during these uncertain years. When DTH went quiet, many of its ballerinas failed to find jobs in majority-white companies; because they left the dance world, links to the past were lost and forgotten. That Copeland became a household name has been both a rallying cry and a point of pride for these five dancers.

As Abarca-Mitchell says, “I had such big dreams for myself. So much emotion came up for me when Misty Copeland started getting all the stuff I wish I had gotten. I wish her the best. It’s her time. But damn, I wish I’d had a publicist back then. Somebody who could argue with Arthur and tell him, ‘She’s going to Hollywood to do this quick movie. She’ll be right back.’”

Karlya Shelton, left, performing the principal role in Choo San Goh’s “Introducing” in 1979. Photograph by Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos

Varby cleverly structures the book like a story ballet, with three acts: a set-up, conflicts, and a resolution that, however, avoids a neat bow. In Act One, Valby narrates the formation of Dance Theatre of Harlem and artfully draws each woman out of her childhood and into its magical fold. Incredibly Rohan, who was already a mother of three living on Staten Island, navigates the ferry, subway, and the immense challenges of childcare to carve out a place for herself in the company. It would be a year before she disclosed to anyone that she was the mother, and not the aunt, of the children she brought in on Saturdays. (Mitchell, who occasionally could be as soft as he was sharp, promptly gave her a raise.) The draw for Rohan, and perhaps all of them, Valby writes, “was the notion of dancing once more in pointe shoes, but this time with her people.”Valby balances the dreamt-of pinnacle of finding oneself in an all-Black classical ballet company with the pressure cooker realities that Mitchell and the company faced, akin to startup culture except with societal mores stacked against you. Monies needed to be raised for performances that began only weeks into the company’s formation.

The author also doesn’t shy away from accounts of Mitchell’s “early prioritization of Caucasian beauty standards,” which took the shape of both colorism and demands that the dancers be bone thin. In one of the weekly Zoom sessions that brought these five dancers back together during the pandemic after many years apart, Sells tells the others, “I think the piece I still haven’t fully come to grips with is that although we were a Black ballet company, we were still always confronted by the imagery of what white women dancers looked like.” 

As the company’s first ballet mistress, McKinney-Griffith bore a disproportionate amount of the stress from these tensions. Valby notes her keen diplomacy in her role as Mitchell’s messenger and her advocacy and development of second casts and younger dancers like Shelton-Benjamin and Sells, though ultimately Mitchell’s managerial style would push her away. Sadly, McKinney-Griffith passed away last October, at the age of 74, after a battle with cancer.

Other founding members, such as Aminah Ahmad (formerly Llanchie Stevenson) and Walter Raines, composer Tania Leon, and choreographer Louis Johnson, also play important supporting roles in the narrative. In one surprising anecdote, Valby relates how DTH came to don tights and shoes that actually matched their skin tone, a policy that majority-white companies are only now adopting. Ahmad was thirty years old and feeling like she might never get Mitchell’s attention for a leading role. She began layering brown tights over pink tights in her warmup, just as she had been dyeing her tutu straps her skin tone, when the realization hit: “Wait, my arms now match my legs! All of a sudden, I’m connected. I’m a whole body instead of half of one.”

Dance Theatre of Harlem performed at the White House during the Reagans’ first State Dinner on February 26, 1981. President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan meet with DTH dancers (from left) Donald Williams, Theara Ward, Lorraine Graves, Karlya Shelton, and Mel Tomlinson. Photograph courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum / NARA

While there are so many fascinating bits like this throughout Act One, it is Act Two that I found the most insightful, as Valby gives space to longer monologues in each woman’s voice. This choice feels particularly vital, given that she is a white woman, authoring the story of five Black women. In their own words we learn of their professional and personal struggles, some with domestic abuse and alcoholism, as well as their fantastic second careers. Abarca-Mitchell would find her way back to the studio as rehearsal director for Ballethnic Dance Company in Atlanta after many years away; McKinney-Griffith would move to Germany and start a youth dance program called Space and Time and later, develop the ballet department at Tanzforum Wien in Vienna; Sells would go on to be an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn and dean of students at Harvard Law School before becoming the Metropolitan Opera’s first chief diversity officer; Shelton-Benjamin would learn French, move to Paris, and find a role at Van Cleef & Arpels; and Rohan would keep dancing onstage and in film for years, performing in 2019 with the 5 Plus Ensemble that included other dance legends like Carmen de Lavallade. They would all lose many of their dear friends and partners from the company to AIDS; near the end of the Act Two, Valby grapples with that grief.

Any time spent in a ballet career is hard, even in the most mundane and privileged of circumstances, and the negative and traumatic aspects of the training most often seem to relate in a converse way to the ecstasy and thrill of performing onstage. Many memoirs, interviews, and my own brief career with Milwaukee Ballet confirm this for me. But after reading this book, it is undeniable that it was exponentially more difficult for these five women and their colleagues. The highs and lows were more disparate and magnified because of the unique pressures and constraints that were placed on them as “firsts” and Black ambassadors of the art. Much less, Mitchell’s obsessive and often abusive behavior toward them seems hard to top. The power notes that they wrote to cheerlead each other on, the pre-curtain prayers, and the establishment of a DTH family tree were coping mechanisms that bound them together in the face of such strong headwinds. Each woman would leave the company at odds with Mitchell in some way, and their individual attempts to find closure with him before his death are understated and poignant, their hero never being able to utter words like “sorry” or “love.”

Considering this, Act Three has a lot of drama to resolve. There is an overview of the hiatus that began in 2004, Mitchell’s death in 2018, and a panel of these DTH women convening with Copeland in Boston in 2021 that is meant to end the book with a sense of hope and camaraderie. There are also needling questions: Whose stories are worthy of recording? Whose stories are we missing?

In the final pages, Shelton-Benjamin shows the group the August 1968 issue of the magazine Sepia, featuring Cleo Quitman, one of the founding members of the New York Negro Ballet Company in the late 1950s. Though Rohan and a few of the others remember Quitman, Shelton-Benjamin is frustrated her story has eluded her. The scene is an opening in lieu of an ending; an invitation for more research in order to resist the damaging myth that even if there can be more than one successful classical Black dancer at a time, there were only ever be a few. In giving voice to these five stories, many more names are dropped—to my delight, Kathleen Stanford Grant, with whom I trained as an undergraduate at New York University, gets a shoutout as someone who defied expectation. Each mention holds within it the promise of so many more stories than this one book can account for. And just as the Harlem Swans have said passionately of themselves, these other women were there.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

comments

Connie Hochman

Thank you for this detailed, thoughtful, and thought provoking review of a complex and groundbreaking chapter of ballet history. I learned a lot. It makes me want to read The Swans of Harlem to learn much more.

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