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March 27

Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell formed the Dance Theater of Harlem, the first major ballet company led by an African American dancer.

Photo by New York Daily Times Archive/Getty Images

1934: Breaking Ballet’s Barriers
Arthur Mitchell is born in New York City
After learning to tap dance as a child, Arthur Mitchell wowed a teacher with his version of the jitterbug, a dance popular in the 1940s. Mitchell was encouraged to apply at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. After graduation, Mitchell went on to win a scholarship to the famed School of American Ballet, then to join the New York City Ballet. There, he was told he would have to work twice as hard as the white dancers to be accepted.

In 1957, he performed George Balanchine’s Agon to audiences shocked at the sight of a white woman paired with a black male dancer. Mr. Balanchine ignored the attention, and at 21, Mitchell became the first black male principal dancer of a major dance company and a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1993.
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