An Innovative Force

Dance Theatre of Harlem-The First Ten Years

By Dance Theatre of Harlem

Arthur Mitchell sitting in the audience at the first Open House (1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Arthur Mitchell sitting in the audience at the first Open House

Arthur Mitchell enjoying the performance at the first Open House in the newly opened Dance Theatre of Harlem studio and school at 466 West 152nd Street in Harlem, 1971. Admission was a suggested donation in order to fit the budgets of the neighborhood families.

Arthur Mitchell and company during a lecture -demonstration. (1969/1970) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Arthur Mitchell and company during a lecture- demonstration

In an effort to build an audience for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mitchell used the lecture- demonstrations to educate audiences about ballet and also expose them to quality dancing and choreography. These lecture-demonstrations also termed “Arts Exposure” were performed in libraries, churches and schools.

“Mr. Mitchell conducted the first lecture-demonstration in tights and the kids laughed so hard when he came onstage that the next performance he had on slacks. I have not seen him in tights for a lecture-demonstration since.”

Virginia Johnson, DTH Artistic Director

The first Open House at 466 W. 152nd Street (1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

The first Open House in 1971 with Susan Lovelle

Since its founding DTH has opened the doors of its home in Harlem’s historic Sugar Hill district to showcase the activities of the Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, students from the School as well as renowned and emerging guest artists from all disciplines. This 50- year performance tradition continues today as the Sunday Matinée, four times a year. The offerings at each Matinée are diverse and very entertaining.

Louis Johnson and company members in rehearsal (1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Louis Johnson and company members in rehearsal

Louis Johnson (b. 1931), whose credits include the Broadway musical Purlie, and the film version of "The Wiz", was one of the first African American choreographers to set work on the Dance Theatre of Harlem company. He began his choreography career in 1953 and became known for his blending of styles and genres in a witty manner. "Forces of Rhythm" incorporated a variety of dance and music genres associated with African American performances as well as ballet and classical music. It became a signature piece and remained in the Dance Theatre of Harlem repertory until the 1990s.

Dancers taking class with Co-Founder Karel Shook (1969/1970) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Dancers taking class with Co-Founder Karel Shook


Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers take classical ballet class every day. The lesson begins at the barre and progresses to the center. The movement increases in intensity and difficulty and includes the practice of turning, jumping, and fine tuning the elements of ballet.

Tania León rehearsing the DTH orchestra in Studio 3, at Dance Theatre of Harlem (1970/1971) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Tania León rehearsing the orchestra in Studio 3, at Dance Theatre of Harlem

Renowned Cuban-American composer, Ms. Tania León started at DTH as an accompanist for ballet classes taught by Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell. In 1969 Ms. León became the first Music Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, establishing the Music Department, Music School and Orchestra. She conducted all the compositions she wrote for the company.

“My first conducting experience was incredible. We were on tour in Spoleto and I had not yet studied conducting. Mr. Mitchell, Giancarlo Menotti, Lincoln Kirstein, Mr. Shook and I were sitting in Mr. Menotti’s castle and they told me, “You know the music, go do it.” The conductor we brought with us was unable to perform. I was dying and so nervous. I just went on automatic. I don’t know how I did it but I did and received favorable reviews. After returning to NY I enrolled in conducting classes at NYU.”

Tania León, DTH Conductor, Musical Director

Lena Horne and Leontyne Price rehearse at DTH Studio 3 in preparation for the Harlem Homecoming (1972) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Lena Horne and Leontyne Price rehearse at DTH Studio 3 in preparation for the Harlem Homecoming, 1972

Brock Peters, actor and DTH Board member, and others, observe the mesmerizing talent of Lena Horne and Leontyne Price.

Donald Williams, Neville Bird and Patrick King in Louis Johnson’s "Forces of Rhythm" (1973/1974) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Donald Williams, Neville Bird and Patrick King in an excerpt from Louis Johnson’s "Forces of Rhythm."

Students in the DTH School at the time, Donald Williams and Patrick King later joined the company.


“Three young boys from Chicago came to the school and I auditioned them in the Ethnic department. They were accepted and offered scholarships, but no one thought where they would live. They were very despondent and faced the prospect of returning to Chicago. I invited them to stay with me. They stayed with me for five years and danced with my own company.”

Marie Brooks, DTH Instructor
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Homer Bryant, Susan Lovelle and Mel Tomlinson in Arthur Mitchell’s "Manifestations" (1975) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Homer Bryant, Susan Lovelle and Mel Tomlinson in Arthur Mitchell’s "Manifestations"

Mitchell continued to create choreography, focusing on extending the neoclassical vocabulary to suit the bodies of his dancers. One ballet demonstrating this is "Manifestations" based on the story of Adam and Eve.

Mel Tomlinson as the snake in Arthur Mitchell’s ballet, "Manifestations" (1975/1976) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Mel Tomlinson as the snake in Arthur Mitchell’s ballet, "Manifestations"

“Mel Tomlinson used to carry a snake around on tour in a cage to study for his role in 'Manifestations.'”

The snake's entrance, was a very exciting acrobatic feat.


Homer Bryant, DTH Principal Dancer

Dance Theatre of Harlem company members (1970/1972) by MarbethDance Theatre of Harlem

Dance Theatre of Harlem company members

In ten short years, DTH developed an international touring company a training school and an arts education and community engagement program. DTH demonstrates the power of art to transform lives.

“What started out as a natural resource, is now a national and international resource, a moving, innovative force in dance, theatre and education. Dance Theatre of Harlem is about all that we have to be if we hope to preserve our civilization.”

Karel Shook
November 18, 1978

Credits: Story

Photographs by Marbeth
Copyright held by Dance Theatre of Harlem
Curated by Judy Tyrus

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