Dance Theatre of Harlem: More than slippers and tights

Back in the day, a well meaning mother would enrolled her daughter in ballet class, (because all of her friend’s daughters were also learning to plie and sashe). There were three colors of tights to match or coordinate with our leotard: black, white, and pink. Rarely was a mocha brown, toffee, or a cafe au lait available that was complimentary to our earthy skin tones.

Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem faced this challenge every time he wanted to put on a production of his now legendary ballet company.

Under Mitchell’s instruction, the ballet company’s costumers dyed lycra tights and spray-painted pointe shoes with hues of brown, honey and cinnamon, dyeing the satin ribbons too.Out marched a parade of leggy ballerinas garbed for the real world. Now a common practice, this “reality” skin tone trend began at DTH.

“Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts,” a colorful exhibit first staged at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and now on view at African American Museum through July 4. (Museum executive director Charmaine Jefferson, a UCLA dance major and former DTH executive director, and Woody Schofield, the museum’s deputy director and DTH company manager in the 1990s, brought it to Los Angeles.)

Mitchell is quoted, “Initially, DTH dancers wore pink tights and toe shoes. It always disturbed me but we were following 300 years of tradition. Many people didn’t want to break tradition but sometimes things have to change.”

Read more: LA Times