Local educator China White was a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem and now teaches ballet at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center.
When Dance Theatre of Harlem comes to town Nov. 16 as part of Columbus' I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100 celebration, Joi Brown is sure to see familiar faces. The 13-year-old is one of several local ballet students who were lucky enough to attend intensive workshops at the iconic troupe's New York headquarters this summer.
“Being at Dance Theatre of Harlem was a very big deal because I could see professional dancers who looked like me,” says Brown, who is African-American.
Madison Burks, 13, and Kaleigh Allen, 16, also attended the workshops and agree the experience was valuable. It's important to see other African-Americans at the barre, says Allen, because in the past society “didn't think that black dancers could do classical ballet.”
Anna Glass, Dance Theatre of Harlem's executive director, says the troupe fosters diversity as an antidote to the traditional expectation that only girls who were “super thin and blond” would study ballet.
Glass visited Columbus in early September to promote her troupe's upcoming performance at the Palace Theatre with help from the girls' teacher, someone who knows the stereotypes faced by black dancers as well as anyone. China White was a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem and now teaches ballet at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center and at her own East Side school, Theatre Street Dance Academy.
Sitting in her Fort Hayes office, White points to vintage pictures on the wall behind her as she pays homage to dance luminaries who helped her overcome the obstacles she confronted as an aspiring ballerina. High on the list is the late Arthur Mitchell, a black ballet dancer who'd already achieved international fame when he co-founded Dance Theatre of Harlem along with Karel Shook in 1969. “He is to ballet what Jackie Robinson is to baseball,” White says, only days before the Sept. 19 death of the 84-year-old Mitchell.
White first met Mitchell when her aunt took her to a dance class he led while performing in Cincinnati. She apparently made an impression, because he later invited White to New York and subsequently asked her to work for him. “Before he could get [the words] out of his mouth, I was like, ‘Yes!'” she recalls.
Besides telling Columbus residents about Dance Theatre of Harlem during her visit, Glass says she wants to acquaint them with the “hidden figure” in their midst—namely White, whose groundbreaking work as a ballerina and teacher has made it easier for black girls such as Brown, Burks and Allen to consider careers in ballet.
In contrast to these young ballerinas, who have been inspired by successful black dancers, White grew up in an era that offered few role models. Asked where she got the courage and passion to study ballet, she suggests that she inherited it.
“My mother wanted to take ballet, and of course blacks were not in ballet,” she says. “My grandmother told her, ‘You can't do that. You take tap.' Well, I don't think she stayed in tap too long, because she didn't like it.
“It seems I came into this world wanting to do ballet.”***
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