Your Career in the Arts: “Convention or Invention”

A Student Engagement Program

Student Reading – Excerpt

—Judy Tyrus and Paul Novosel. Dance Theatre of Harlem: A History, A Movement, A Celebration. New York, Kensington, 2021. Page 9. Copyright © 2021 by ChromaDiverse, Inc. Used with permission. Reprint permission for this excerpt only is granted for educational school use only.


In 1952, Karel Shook was teaching at the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and heard about Arthur Mitchell. He requested that Mitchell come to see him and told him that he had all the possibilities of becoming a first-class dancer if he would work. That vote of confidence coupled with the word work was like a magic potion for Mitchell: “If work was all that was required—well that was easy.” Shook gave him a Dunham scholarship, and from that time, befriended, mentored, and eventually collaborated with him to establish Dance Theatre of Harlem. Trust developed very early in their relationship.

At the Dunham School, Mitchell received a dance education that asked questions about cultural diversity, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. This liberal arts aesthetic exposed him to interrelated disciplines that eventually shaped DTH as a school of the allied arts, not just a dance school. This holistic approach to ballet gave him the idea to learn about cultures, to research, and to seek ways to make choreography more relevant to the dancers and audience. He learned how ballet is an art of arts. …

… At 18, Mitchell’s focus on dance switched into high gear with classes at the School of American Ballet and private lessons with Karel Shook at Dunham. Having to support his family, he worked part-time. This cut into his training and lessons. Shook offered him a teaching position in the school, where future luminaries of dance Geoffrey Holder, Alvin Ailey, and Mary Hinkson were training in ballet. This atmosphere was part of Mitchell’s gateway to greatness.

Determined, dedicated, and passionate, Mitchell had a regimen and stuck to it. His longtime friend and Martha Graham star dancer Mary Hinkson said of him, “You talk about discipline—I mean he was possessed with this whole thing. He would awaken at 8:00 to do his pre-barre exercises so that his body would be ready for his first class of the day.” Shook said that Mitchell “could work for hours and hours every day and he accepted gracefully every correction that was ever given to him.”

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