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Remembering Arthur Mitchell, First Black Dancer to Join New York City Ballet

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Black and White photo of Arthur Mitchell dancing

The dance world lost a trailblazer today. 

Arthur Mitchell, the first black ballet dancer to achieve international stardom, died at the age of 84 from heart failure on Wednesday in Manhattan. Mitchell was one of the most popular ballet dancers with the New York City Ballet, where he danced from 1956 to 1968. He went on to become the founding director of Dance Theater of Harlem, the nation’s first major black classical company.  

Arthur Mitchell grew up in Harlem, New York where he started working at the age of 12 after his father was incarcerated. He attended the High School of Performing Arts and won a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet. His debut on Broadway came in 1952 in the opera Four Saints in Three Acts

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In 1955, Mitchell joined the New York City Ballet and was the first black dancer to do so. He rose to the position of principal dancer in 1956 and performed in all the major ballets. 

In 1969, the groundbreaking dance school Dance Theater of Harlem was born, thanks to Mitchell and and founding partner Karel Shook, Mitchell’s teacher. The classical ballet school began with 30 students in a church basement and provided opportunity in dance training for children in an underserved community. The school quickly grew into 400 students. 

Arthur Mitchell is a recipient of United States National Medal of Arts and various honorary doctorates from universities around the country, including Harvard University and Williams College.