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Dance Theater of Harlem in Houston: Houston Dance Students Learn From Ballet Royalty

Mae A.

Dance Theater of Harlem's Lindsey Donnell leads dance students at the Fort Bend Academy of the Arts and Dance in Houston.Photo byDavid Settle

Houston students of dance were gifted the opportunity of a lifetime to elevate their skills under the tutelage of the legendary Dance Theater of Harlem, whose members visited Houston Dec. 6-11 in an arts education outreach program.

“The students were so honored to be in their presence,” said Charity Carter, founder and executive director of the Edison Arts Foundation which supports dance programs in Fort Bend, a diverse district in southwest Houston.

“They were very attentive. Kids that are normally wiggly stood upright. They wanted to show ‘Miss Lindsey’ they were paying attention,” Carter said, referring to Lindsey Donnell, company ballerina and Texas native who led some 50 dance students aged 5-18 in a “master class” at The Fort Bend Academy of Arts and Dance.

The educational tour was organized by Performing Arts Houston and comes ahead of the company's Feb. 3-4 performances in Houston's Jones Hall.

Celebrated as the nation’s first black classical ballet company, The Dance Theater of Harlem was founded in 1969 at the height of the civil rights movement by ballet master Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, a pioneer dancer who broke social norms when he became the first black principal dancer at the New York City Ballet.

Now advertised as a multi-ethnic company that “performs a forward-thinking repertoire,” both nationally and internationally, the company seeks to honor Mitchell’s belief that “ballet belongs to everyone,” their website says, by bringing the art to the people through performances and community outreach and education programs.

In Houston, that meant holding “master classes” in public schools, private dance academies, and community gatherings in neighborhoods that are predominantly African-American or diverse. That included Willowridge High School, Bellaire High School, Meyerland Middle School, and Marshall Middle School.

The company members also held a private master class at the Houston Ballet and also held a public workshop for visitors to the Holiday in the Tre Festival at Emancipation Park. The residency tour culminated in a performance Sunday at Wheeler Baptist Church in Houston’s Third Ward, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in south central Houston. That performance was for the people.

To add to the prestige, the company’s Houston residency week was led by its founding member and former prima ballerina Virginia Johnson, who is on her last tour as artistic director.

Johnson was honored at FBAAD and also met with students there as Donnell led them in warm-ups and stretches before helping the young dancers to perfect their adagio movements and allegro steps (that’s ballet speak for fluid, slower-paced movements and short or long leaps across the floor respectively).

For Carter, exposing her students to the Dance Theater of Harlem wasn’t only about witnessing “excellence in art,” but also about learning the company’s history – including the hardships that its members endured and overcame. “It’s important they (the students) know the history, the hardships, and know they can do it too,” Carter said. “Seeing is believing. If they see it, they’ll know that it can happen for them too,” she said.

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