First Lady Michelle Obama honored the contributions of Black women in dance in an event on Monday at the White House, part of a series of offerings celebrating Black History Month. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Today is a very special day,” said Mrs. Obama. “It’s pretty special for me, personally, because I absolutely love dance. I think it’s probably my favorite art form.”[/pullquote]
Fifty-one girls from the D.C. area were welcomed to the White House to learn about the rich legacy of Black women in dance, and to participate in workshops with living dance legends Debbie Allen (choreographer/actress and director), Judith Jamison (Alvin Ailey Artistic Director Emerita), Fatima Robinson (music video director/choreographer), and Virginia Johnson (Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director). The students shared what they learned with the First Lady in a culminating performance Monday afternoon.
The event, which also included a panel discussion with Ms. Allen, Ms. Jamison, Ms. Robinson and Ms. Johnson, was not only a celebration of the contributions of Black women in dance, but also a reminder of the adversity that these women, and others like them, have overcome. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It wasn’t that long ago that many major ballet companies wouldn’t hire Black dancers,” said Mrs. Obama in her remarks before the performance.[/pullquote]
Ms. Johnson was told as early in her career that as a Black woman, she would never be able to find a job in ballet, the First Lady shared. Luckily, that warning did not dissuade Ms. Johnson from pursuing her passion, which led her to dance with—and eventually direct—a company that didn’t even exist when she received that advice. In 1969, Dance Theater of Harlem was created, in part, to give African American dancers opportunities that eluded them in existing ballet companies. Ms. Johnson became a founding member of that groundbreaking troupe, and in her 28 performing with them, she danced principal roles in major ballets like Concerto Barocco, Agon, Swan Lake, and Giselle. In 2009, she became the troupe’s artistic director.
Ms. Allen was turned away from the Houston Ballet school because of her race. She went on to star in the movie FAME, win a Tony award for her portrayal of Anita in the revival of West Side Story, and to work as a director on popular shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. Ms. Allen opened her own dance school in Los Angeles in 2001, and is now inspiring the next generation.
Ms. Jamison, who danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 15 years, was Alvin Ailey’s most important muse. Her performance of Cry, which Mr. Ailey made for Ms. Jamison in honor of his mother, holds legendary status in the collective mind of dance history. But, Ms. Jamison’s skills span beyond dance. She went on to choreograph for the troupe—and then run it, after Mr. Ailey’s death, turning a $1 million deficit into a $25 million endowment while building the organization’s first permanent home, which opened its doors in 2005.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Because of the examples [these women have] set, today a black woman named Misty Copeland is a principle dancer in the American Ballet Theater,” said the First Lady. [/pullquote]
But, people of color nevertheless encounter challenges in the arts and elsewhere. “Young Black women are still facing glass ceilings and an unlevel playing field when it comes to education and job opportunities,” Ms. Allen shared in an email to Grace + Steel.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Mrs. Obama also acknowledged the work ahead. She urged the students to keep fighting for a future where “a black principle dancer is no longer a cause for headlines.”[/pullquote]
A day of both education and encouragement, it was not just the students who left energized. Ms. Jamison said by email that, for her, the event was full of “unforgettable moments.” She continued, “No First Lady has been more aware of the impact that strong Black women have on our children,” she continued. “What a pleasure to see young people being engaged in dance for an entire day at the White House.”
Mrs. Obama and the President have long shown their support for dance. They have been frequent audience members of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Ms. Jamison’s artistry, in particular, has been an inspiration to the couple.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“For years, Judith’s picture from Cry was the only piece of art that Barack and I had in our first condominium,” said Mrs. Obama.[/pullquote]
“Thank you,” the First Lady nodded with sincerity to Ms. Jamison.
Thank you, Mrs. Obama, for bringing politics and dance together with such grace.