Changing the face of ballet: Original Dance Theatre of Harlem member reflects on the company’s wide-ranging impact
Based on first impression alone, it’s apparent that Gayle McKinney Griffith was, at one point in her life, a ballet dancer. When answering the door to her Waterford home, she delicately holds out her arm for a handshake, speaks with poise, and exudes a controlled confidence usually found with those trained in ballet. Or when having her photograph taken, McKinney Griffith’s rigid ballet training will instinctively kick in, despite the fact she retired from professional dancing decades ago. She folds her arms carefully, knowing precisely where to place her hands, and lifts her chin in a way that could only complement her jawline — habits, she says, that were ingrained while training and performing as a ballet dancer with the groundbreaking Dance Theatre of Harlem — the nation’s first major black classical company — through its early years in the late 1960s and ’70s.
What most people couldn’t guess based on first impression alone, however, is the role McKinney Griffith played in changing the face of ballet while with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. As one of its original dance members and later working as the company’s first dance mistress, McKinney Griffith was a part of redefining who and what ballet could be, helping to bring black dancers into a centuries-old dance form.
Founded in 1968 by Arthur Mitchell — the man remembered as ballet’s “godfather of diversity” and the first black dancer accepted into the New York Ballet under the direction of renowned choreographer George Balanchine in 1956 — Dance Theatre of Harlem was created with the idea of influencing a new generation of black dancers, all in the wake of an unfolding Civil Rights Movement.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Mitchell, who was then heading a dance company in Brazil, made it a point to return to the United States. For him, McKinney Griffith says, it was the precise moment he needed to bring change back home.
We spoke to McKinney Griffith shortly after Mitchell died in September and shortly before the Dance Theatre of Harlem came to dance as part of Connecticut College's onStage series last month.
Ballet from the beginning
Born in Harlem, McKinney Griffith moved to Quaker Hill at the age of 6. Though she pursued dance and ballet starting at the age of 3, first in a dance program at Carnegie Hall where she learned the basics of rhythm and movement, it was here in New London, at the Froman Ballet School, where McKinney Griffith received the foundation needed to later pursue ballet as a professional. For the purposes of this story, McKinney Griffith declined to state her age.
Even as a teenager, while she was president of the Waterford High School dance club and as she danced as part of the Connecticut College American Dance Festival, McKinney Griffith says she already knew she wanted to be a ballet performer.
“I just said, ‘Oh, I’m going to do that,’” she recalls. “But I didn’t realize that there weren’t opportunities for us, not very many, at least.”
“I could count on my hand the few times I had seen a black dancer, and most often, they would not be in ballet,” she says.
But instead of letting the gravity of such realities sway her ambitions, McKinney Griffith applied to The Juilliard School’s dance program with the support of her parents, who, she says, always taught her to follow her dreams and, most importantly, stay strong in the face of adversity. She was accepted and moved to New York City to attend that program after graduating from high school.
Those lessons carried McKinney Griffith through her first years as a dance student, where she dreamt of majoring in ballet but was discouraged by administrators from doing so.
“There were other black dancers in Juilliard’s dance division, but I was the only one that really wanted to perform ballet. … They told me that there was no opportunity for that.”
“They didn’t say, ‘You’re black, no, you can’t.’ But they did say, ‘Oh, I don’t think that would be a good idea for you.’ I just wanted to major in it, with the hopes of performing, and they told me I should go into the modern, where the majority of the black dancers were.”
“It was very discouraging,” McKinney Griffith says, while also explaining that today, she doesn’t view the experience with animosity. Rather, she views it as the step that brought her to a better opportunity — The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“It was because of that that my friend recommend I audition for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and that I met Arthur Mitchell,” she says.
Mitchell, at that time, was dancing in the roles, choreographed by Balanchine, that would come to define his career — a pas de deux with NYC Ballet principal dancer Diana Adams, for example, in “Agon,” and later, a role as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
But McKinney Griffith says she wasn’t entirely familiar with Mitchell at that point.
To determine whether she was interested in joining the DTH, McKinney Griffith went to see Mitchell perform. It was a first impression she says she’ll never forget.
“He was fantastic,” she says. “He has a style and aura about him that commands the stage. But not only because of his skin color, but because he is who he is. He just emulated this wonderful energy, and Balanchine’s style of movement lends itself to his form and his way of expressing ballet.”
Convinced of Mitchell, his vision and his dance ability, McKinney Griffith auditioned shortly after, before ultimately being accepted into the group in 1968.
“(I was) scared to death. Just scared. Just heart pounding. But I wanted to dance, because I wanted to show what I could do,” she says.
McKinney Griffith remembers those beginning years with the Dance Theater of Harlem fondly, though they were difficult and rigorous, she says.
“We had to prove ourselves to the critics,” she says. “At that point, and even still, ballet was seen as a typically European, white, aristocratic form of dance … It was considered very elitist in general.”
“They would say that perhaps our bodies were not suited for this type of movement,” she continues.
“So we had to prove that, through our expertise, we were worthy. And there were many fallacies and misconceptions. It was more like they didn’t know that we could do this. Or ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could do an arabesque this way.’ We had to show them otherwise.”
Starting small, the group located themselves in the basement of the Church of the Master in a room that also functioned as a recreation hall on Morningside Avenue in Harlem. While looking through photo albums of those early days, McKinney Griffith points out dancers rehearsing under basketball hoops and visiting school children throughout the borough to teach and perform.
The point of that, she says, was to bring the art of, and their love for, ballet to the next generation of black dancers, while also trying to establish themselves as a premier dance company, one that was as competitive as other dance companies nationwide — a hard feat considering that black ballet dancers were not the norm within an 18th-century European art form.
“We went everywhere, we danced everywhere,” she says. “We were just as good as the white dancers, and Arthur made sure we trained with the best of the best.”
McKinney Griffith remembers being taught by esteemed dancers and choreographers, some of which were Balanchine's.
“We had to learn the Balanchine style, and Arthur had the style, but he wanted us on pointe to really learn what the step really is. So Balanchine’s ballerinas would train us, and we would go to the New York City Ballet,” she says.
But it was Mitchell’s driving vision behind the DTH that came to shape the group in a unique and distinctive way.
“It was all very profound. It touched all of us because we knew we were doing something that needed to be done. We were breaking barriers, we were creating history and we were performing and doing what we loved," McKinney Griffith saya.
“We didn’t realize the impact we were having, but we were aware of it,” she continues. “As I look back, it was really a tremendous thing.”
Creating an identity
Approximately three years after DTH’s inception, McKinney Griffith stepped up to take the role of ballet mistress for the company. Because she was able to learn and memorize dance steps quickly and with accuracy, McKinney Griffith was a logical choice for the position. Her responsibilities, for the next seven years, would include organizing the rehearsals, rehearsing the company, taking notations, and scheduling, while still dancing as part of the company.
She also recounts that, as the group slowly started to gain national and international recognition, the company had to simultaneously oversee its own production responsibilities — setting up stages and performance spaces as they traveled cross country in a bus.
“We would bring all the lights, costumes, all the wires, all the booms, all of that on board with us every time we went to do a show,” McKinney Griffith explains. “And when we would get there, we would get out, take our bags to the lobby and get our rooms. And then we would come back out and take the equipment and wheel all that in. It was a lot of work.”
“But we took care of each other, and we respected each other,” she says. “And it was hard work because we were up against people never having seeing a black ballet company, and skeptics and critics, and so we had to be strong, and Arthur gave us that initial strength and power.”
A sign of that certain pride, McKinney Griffith says, was when the company started dyeing their tights and shoes to match their skin tones — a trademark that the DTH is still known for to this day.
Starting out with simple tea leaves, but later moving on to use clothing and shoe dye, McKinney Griffith says the process of dyeing pink ballet leotards and tights, meant for white dancers, was empowering.
“What was unique was that Virginia was one complexion, I was another complexion and a different dancer would be a different complexion. And because we were doing that for ourselves, that made us feel very proud … it was really a caring, professional attitude about who we were and what we were doing.”
Something bigger than herself
Now working as a ballet teacher at the Dance Extension School in New London, McKinney Griffith is still spreading her love of ballet to future generations.
Looking back on her time in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, she says she can’t help but be touched by the sweeping influence the company had worldwide and her role in that overall picture.
“Arthur had a vision that, for us, surpassed all of our dreams at that time. He broke open the doors for us to come rushing in and showing our talents. It was multifaceted and we could do so many different things that, ordinarily, you wouldn’t see,” she says.
“He challenged us, and we broke those barriers. I’m very grateful for that, I’m very thankful I had him in my life.”
“It was like he was throwing seeds,” McKinney Griffith says, looking back on how Mitchell and the dance company left both a societal and cultural impact that is still felt today.
“He planted this idea in all these people. He touched more than just professional dancers. He touched opera writers, costume designers, musicians, tech professionals. … Everywhere, he spread the seeds, and they germinated, and all these incredible people, all over the world, came up from it. I feel so proud to be a part of that.”