Long before Misty Copeland became the first African American principal dancer in the American Ballet, other African American women in dance paved the way. Women like Judith Jamison (Alvin Ailey Dance Company), Debbie Allen (dance legend, actress, producer), Virginia Johnson (Dance Theater of Harlem) and Fatima Robinson (Hip hop dance pioneer, activist) were breaking down barriers of discrimination against minorities with one kick ball change, twirl, or hip thrust at a time. These dance pioneers put history in motion, transferring their collective gifts to 51 young DC-area Black girls at the 2016 White House Black History Month Celebration honoring Black women in dance. On Feb. 8 the Office of First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the event themed, “Honoring the Past While Celebrating the Present; 7 Years of African American History.” The four legends conducted master classes in modern, African, ballet and Hip Hop dance with students ranging from knee-high sized to high school aged.
The First Lady said the event was the fulfillment of a dream.
“Today is a very special day at the White House, and it’s pretty special for me personally because I absolutely love dance. . . .as you know, I never pass up the opportunity to, you know, show some moves every now and then. So to actually host all these extraordinary dancers today, this is really a dream come true for me.”
From jamming with hosts Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres to breaking it down in the Let’s Move” workout, everyone knows the first lady fully embraces dance. She had a big dance party for her 50th birthday and a youth dance workshop in 2010, but this would be her final Black History Month event in the seven years she has served as FLOTUS. Presenting a tribute to living black legends of dance who were also participants was a legacy embossing decision for the first African American First Lady of the U.S.
For an hour and a half the State Dining Room was transformed into a dance studio and the rest is history. Never before have dancers performed choreography that was taught by legendary dance masters on the spot — in the White House. At the same time the history of Black American dance was incorporated into the presentation.
Mrs. Obama further explained the broader significance of the event:” Today isn’t just a special day for me, it’s really a special day for our entire country. Because for nearly 50 years, the women who are gracing us here today have been driving a force in the — they’ve been a driving force in the cultural life of this nation. From tribal rhythms to freedom songs, from modern dance to hip hop, their work has stirred our souls and ignited our imagination. Through dance, they have told the stories of who we were, who we are, and who we can be.
And during Black History Month, that’s really what we celebrate — we celebrate the people who have shaped our heritage. We remember those who struggled for our rights and our freedoms, and we reflect on how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.”
With America being one generation removed from the Civil Rights Era, there is a tendency to assume the doors that are now open were never locked to Blacks and Latinos.
“It wasn’t that long ago that many major ballet companies wouldn’t hire black dancers,” Obama said. “And the few black dancers that were hired were sometimes asked to wear white pancake makeup to hide their face from the audience. Some of the women who are with us today felt the sting of the discrimination first hand.”
Each dance pioneer shared nuggets of the history before introducing the group they molded during the day.
Jamison, gently reminded attendees that at times one must “create your own door.” At nearly six feet tall, aside from her skin color, she did not fit the standard measurements of a ballerina, but went on to create opportunities and open doors for herself and other dancers of color around the world.
Lowe, who choreographed Michael Jackson’s epic “Remember the Time” video, talked about the progress she has seen in getting Hip Hop recognized as an art form.
Johnson said late Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mithcell’s idea was to make something to change the lives of the forgotten youth of Harlem in ht elate 60s and he chose ballet as the vehicle.
After Debbie Allen led her group in a Katherine Dunham inspired number, Jamison cried, “Hallelujah! Y’all took us to church!”
Jamison’s group performed two inspiring numbers from “Revelation.”
Johnson’s bunch were on point with a beautiful ballet presentation.
The performances came to a jubilant end with Robinson’s group dancing Hip Hop to “Can You Feel A Brand New Day” which she choreographed for “The Wiz Live!”
Valerie Garrett, President Obama’s Chief Advisor and Deborah Lee head of BET and Chairwoman of the Alvin Ailey board were in attendance.
Earlier in the day, LaLa Anthony moderated a panel discussion wherein the dancers had an opportunity to glean directly from their special instructors and First Lady Obama.
Appearing to allude to the recent controversy over the validity of celebrating Black History Month, First Lady Obama concluded stating, “Happy Black History Month to everyone. Enjoy the month. You all keep studying and working hard. Let’s not just celebrate Black History Month in February, let’s celebrate it every single day of every single year for ever and ever and ever. We have contributed so much to this nation and to this planet. And we have to make sure that our young people understand where they come from and how valuable they are, how valuable that history is, so that they know they have a solid foundation upon which to soar.”
You could feel the spirit in that room. The African drums were talking. Saying something ’bout #blackgirlmagic, #blacklivesmatter #blackgirlsrock #weshallnotbemoved.