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Masterclass from Dance Theatre of Harlem leader gives lessons on confidence, working towards goals


Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson speaks to young dance students from La’Nita Rocknettes School of Dance, Kentucky Center’s ArtsReach, Our Voice Dance Collective and Louisville Ballet School. Photo by Faith Lindsey.


By Faith Lindsey

duPont Manual High School, Class of 2021


After a watching a glorious night of ballet performed by the Dance Theatre of

Harlem (DTH) on Friday, Nov. 9 at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, 23

middle and high school girls woke up early the next morning to take part in a

masterclass led by Virginia Johnson, the company’s artistic director.


In a large room at Louisville Ballet’s Main Street studios that morning was a sea of

black leotards and tight ballerina buns — many worn by students from La’Nita

Rocknettes School of Dance, Kentucky Center’s ArtsReach, Our Voice Dance

Collective and Louisville Ballet School.


Among them was Brown School eighth-grader Malaysia Green, a student of La’Nita

Rocknettes School of Dance, who wore a red-white-and-blue windbreaker and

dyed-bright green crown of coils atop her head. She stood with her shoulders back

and head held high. She commanded attention.


Students from La’Nita Rocknettes School of Dance in a masterclass taught by Dance Theatre of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson. Photo by Faith Lindsey.


At the end of the class, Johnson took questions. She was a member of the company

from its founding by Author Mitchell and Karel Shook in 1969 after Martin Luther

King Jr. was murdered. She danced with the company until 1997 before returning in

in 2009 as its artistic director.


When Malaysia was given the chance to question Johnson, her question belied the

conviction she seemed to emanate.


“What advice would you give to a ballet student who’s really doubting herself?” she

asked Johnson.


Johnson told the young girl that it was all a game of the mind.


Before Johnson’s 28-year reign as a dancer in the company, she was, as she

described herself, an uncoordinated mess. But, she added her love for the art

transcended those challenges and led to her performing for Presidents Jimmy Carter

and Ronald Reagan, being one of the first ballerinas to perform in the Union of

Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and having a lead role in the “Creole Giselle,”

which was a groundbreaking piece of work staged from the European “Giselle” in

1984.


Even though Johnson was a founding member, she explained how she once felt she

didn’t belong.


Malaysia, a plus-size black dancer, said later in an interview that she feels like she

continuously is trying to prove her worth.

Institutions such as DTH were created for people like her. The company and its

school in Harlem were made to be accepting of black students in a world that wasn’t

so accepting of them, because their bodies, skin and hair didn’t exactly fit the white

mold.


La’Nita Rocknettes School of Dance’s Artistic Director Harlina Trumbo recalled

hearing dancers at her school in the past “being told that your physique is not

conducive to standing on your toes.” For some black ballerinas over the past

century, their existence seemed to be against many things the traditional art form

stood for.


Meanwhile, over the past 50 years, studios in cities throughout the country — such as

La’Nita Rocknettes School of Dance — helped cultivate professional ballet dancers

including Gregory Jackson, who grew up in the Park Hill neighborhood and danced

with DTH. In recent decades, Louisville has seen other programs including Kentucky

Center’s ArtsReach and Genesis Dance welcome young people of color.


At the national level, DTH has given dancers who have spoken about comments they

received about their bodies a launching pad to the world stage, such as Michaela

DePrince. She joined the company at t 17. A year later, the Dutch National Ballet

hired her. All of this from a young lady born in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone

with vitiligo, a skin disease that causes patches of color loss, and who became an

orphan as a toddler.


Exposing children of color to dance and the arts is not only able to alter the

trajectory of their life, but allows them to define their own worth in the skin their in.


DTH co-founder Mitchell used to make a parallel with singers by asking, said

Johnson, “Can you hit the high C?”


If you can, the message is don’t let anything stop you for reaching for what is already

yours.

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