Last May, suddenly drifting into the immoral world, five former ballerinas came together to form the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy. Every Tuesday afternoon, they would log onto Zoom from across the country to recount their time performing with Harlem’s Dance Theater, realizing that the early audience had a magical turn from skepticism to awe.
Life as a pioneer, life in a pandemic: They’ve been friends for more than half a century, and have supported each other through a more difficult time than in this past disorienting year. When guys reached for all manner of comforts, to serve some purpose or to shape days, these five women turned to their shared past.
In his casual, combative weekly Zoom meetings, laced with laughter and occasional showers of tears, he revisited the splendor of his former life. With the backdrop of the murder of George Floyd and a pandemic disproportionately affecting the black community, women set their sights on tackling yet another injustice. They wanted to rewrite the struggles and feats of those early years in Harlem’s dance theater as a cultural narrative that often seems to cast black excellence aside.
“There is so much of African American history that has been denied or pushed back,” said Carla Shelton-Benjamin, 64, who first brought the idea of a heritage council to other women. “
They knew as young ballet students that they would never be cast for roles such as Clara in “The Nutcracker” or Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake”. They were asked by their teachers to switch to modern dance or to aim for the Alvin Ailey Company if they wanted to dance professionally, even if they felt most alive.
Arthur Mitchell was like a lighthouse for women. Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer of the New York City Ballet and a mentor to choreographer George Balanchine, had a mission: to create a home for Black dancers seeking to achieve heights of excellence, free from ignorance or tradition. Rev Dr. Ignite by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he founded the Dance Theater of Harlem with Karel Shook in 1969.
Lydia Abarka-Mitchell, Gail McKinney-Griffith and Sheila Rohan were the dancers of their new company, with 71-year-old McKinney-Griffith soon playing its first ballet mistress. Within the decade, Shelton-Benjamin and Marcia Sales joined as the first generation of dancers.
Abarca-Michel, 70, spent her childhood joyless ballet classes, but never saw an actual performance until she was 17, at the invitation of Michele, her new teacher. “I will never forget what Arthur did on stage”, he said of his puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the New York City Ballet during Tuesday’s session in January. “He made ballet so natural. Suddenly it was no longer just this ethereal thing. I felt it in my bones.”
Marcia Sales, 61, was remembered at age 9 and was on fire with her mouth when Abarca-Mitchell, McKinney-Griffith and Rohan performed with the Dance Theater in her hometown of Cincinnati. “There were black ballerinas in front of me,” Sales said during a video call in April. “That moment was the difference in my life. Otherwise I don’t think it would have been possible for me to think about a career in ballet.
Shelton-Benjamin left her Denver Ballet company, where she was the only black dancer, to turn down invitations to the Joffrey Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, after reading a story about Harlem’s dance theater in Dance. magazine. Abarka-Michelle was on the cover of that issue—the first black woman to receive that honor. At her Harlem audition, Shelton-Benjamin saw members of the company dying their shoes and ribbons and tights by hand to match the color of their skin. Here, no traditional ballet pinks will obstruct the beauty of her lines. “I’ve never seen a black ballerina before, let alone a whole company,” Shelton-Benjamin, 64, said during a February Zoom meeting. “All I could think was, ‘Where were you guys?'”
Then finding each other, at the height of the civil rights movement, allowed them to pursue a career challenging a ballet culture that was claimed by white men. “We were suddenly ambassadors,” Abarka-Michel said. “And we were all in this together.”
They traveled to American cities, which presented such a hostile environment that Mitchell would cancel that night’s performance, lest his company be insulted. But he also danced for kings and queens and presidents. In 1979, a review in The Washington Post declared her dance to be “a purer realization of the Balanchine ideal than anyone else”. His exploits off the stage were lightning, like the night in Manchester when Mick Jagger invited him into town. “We went to the club with him and everyone got out of the way,” Shelton-Benjamin said.
Cultural memory can be fake and short-sighted. Abarca-Mitchell was the first black prima ballerina for a major company, performing such works as Balanchine’s “Agon” and “Bugaku” and William Dollar’s “Le Combat”. In an April Zoom session she said she first realized how far she was from history when her daughter went online to prove to a friend that her mother was the first black prima ballerina. But all she found was the name Misty Copeland, hailed as the first. “And my daughter was very mad. She said: ‘Where’s your name? Where’s your name?’ It was a wake-up call.”
When Abarka-Mitchell paused to wipe her eyes, Shelton-Benjamin stepped in: “I want to echo what Lydia said. There was a point where I asked the women, ‘Did all this really happen? Was I really a lead dancer?’ And Lydia said to me: ‘Don’t do that! yes you were We’re here to tell you, you were.”
Sales continued her career that included serving as dean of students at Harvard Law School until she became the Metropolitan Opera’s first chief variety officer this year. Shelton-Benjamin is now a jeweler recently certified in diamond grading. She, along with Abarka-Mitchell, McKinney-Griffith and Rohan, continues to dance and teach. They all have families on the way, including another grandson, McKinney-Griffith, who announced the good news to Whoops on a recent call.
But they’ve ended up swallowing up the mythology of firstness with fellow pioneers like Katherine Dunham, Debra Austin, Raven Wilkinson, Lauren Anderson, and Ayesha Ashe. It is true that Misty Copeland is the first black female principal of American Ballet Theatre. It is also true that she stands on the shoulders of the founders and first generation dancers in dance theatre. A narrative that suggests otherwise, said Sales, “simply makes ballet history weaker and shorter.”
Worse, it perpetuates the belief that blackness in ballet is a one-off rather than a constant fact. And it suggests a solitary existence for dancers like Copeland, a world with an absence of companions. “We could have been Misty’s aunts,” Abarka-Michelle said. “I wish she was part of our brotherhood, that’s all.”
Dance theater saved her from being alone in a room. The work was so hard, the expectations so high, the mission so urgent that a family support system was demanded among the dancers in those early days. “Someone will take you under their wing and say, ‘You’re my daughter or sister or brother,'” McKinney-Griffith said. “Men did too. Karlya was my little sister, and we played her for years.”
Like any family, relationships are complicated. Women talk about feeling outside the dance theater of today’s Harlem. He is rarely brought in for workshops or consultations on the ballet taught by Michel. At his memorial service in 2018, he unintentionally cried. “We are like orphans,” laughed Rohan in the Zoom session. “If the outside world ignores us, that seems all the more reason we should embrace Harlem’s dance theater.”
Virginia Johnson, a fellow founding member, is now the artistic director of the company. He took over in 2013 when Dance Theater returned after an eight-year hiatus due to financial instability. “I feel sad to think that they feel ostracized,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “And it’s not because I don’t want them. It’s just because I can’t manage. I may have missed some opportunities, but it’s not that I haven’t thought about the value they bring to the company.” They are body, soul, soul of Harlem’s dance theater.”
“We all think about and love and respect what Arthur Mitchell did,” she said, “but these are the people he worked with to build this company.”
By the end of May, five members of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy had been fully vaccinated. They traveled from Denver, Atlanta, Connecticut, South Jersey and, in the case of Sales, to a joyous reunion five blocks north of Harlem’s dance theater. A lot is different now in the 152nd Street building. Escape from the old fire in Studio 3 where they would hold their breath or wipe away tears of despair. So there are large industrial fans in the corners of the rooms, which have been replaced by central air conditioning. But they can still feel their leader in the room around them. Crying, Abarka-Michelle told McKinney-Griffith, “I miss Arthur.” (Though they all laugh imagining his reaction to his Legacy Council. “I believe he will try to control us,” said Rohan. “‘What are you doing now? Why are you doing this? Recommend it to me. …'”)
The body remembers. In Studio 3, all Shelton-Benjamin had to do was hum a few notes of Balanchine’s “Serenade” and say “more” for the women to gracefully sweep their right arms. “These women help validate my worth,” Abarka-Michel later said. “I don’t want to take it lightly that people should recognize Lydia Abraca. But when I’m with her I feel like I felt back in that time. Important.”
Even as the world reopens and they get engaged again, they’ll continue on their Tuesday afternoons. They want to amplify the voice of more alumni. They dream of starting a scholarship program for young dancers of color. This fall, they will host a webinar in honor of director and choreographer Billy Wilson, whose daughter Alexis was also a part of the dance theatre.
“We have a spiritual connection,” said Rohan, who turned 80 this year. She was 27 when she joined the company, already married and hiding from Michelle that she was the mother of three young children, for fear that she might be kicked out. When he finally confessed a year later, he was mad, insisting that he would increase his salary if he knew he had a mouth to feed.
“Arthur planted a seed in me, and all these beautiful women helped it grow,” she said. “Coming from Staten Island, I was just a country girl from projects. My first time on the plane was to go to Europe to dance on those stages. I thank God every day for the experience. This year, together again Coming, I remembered how much all this meant to me. I didn’t need to be a star ballerina. It was enough that I was there. I was there. I was there.”