African Americans may occupy a few of top spots in music, but when it comes to dance arts, they still have to break several barriers.
As one of the oldest ballet companies still catering to dancers of color today–created in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell and Karen Shook–Dance Theatre of Harlem began on the premise of making black dancers a priority. The association relaunched in August 2012, after an eight-year hiatus, and is about to embark on its New York season.
Vixen was pleased to chat with one of the company’s principle dancers, Ashley Murphy, as she excitedly preps for another tour with the ballet company. Murphy dishes on the hardships of being a black ballerina and expectations to fulfill the legacy of DTH. — Sharifa Daniels
VIBE Vixen: Why did you chose to perform with Dance Theatre of Harlem?
Ashley Murphy: Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to do ballet and this was the first time I actually got to see ballet dancers that looked like myself. It was really an inspiration.
What are some things people don’t understand about black ballet dancers?
How much harder we have to work to get to the same level. There was a stigma before that said black people don’t have the bodies, they don’t have good feet, they don’t have extension or they don’t have the presence that it takes to do that character role. Trying to break that stigma and show the world that black dancers can do the same, just as well, and sometimes even better is the hardest thing to do. It’s gotten easier over the years, but there’s still a long way to go. Thank God there’s Dance Theatre of Harlem, a place for African American and multiracial dancers to go, but it shouldn’t be that there has to be a company created to give those dancers priority. Every dancer, no matter their [skin] color, should be a priority in any company.
AM: The president. We got to do a program at the White House a couple years ago when Bush was still in office. Hopefully we get to go back soon while [Barack] Obama is still in office.
Why do you think it’s important for people to take notice of what DTH is doing?
Since 2004, the company has been on hiatus because of financial problems, so we have so much to show the world that was lost for so many years. DTH needs to be here to continue to help put black ballerinas and dancers in general back on the map. DTH is important in progressiveness in that aspect. It’s our job now to bring that great name back and continue to excel and make it even better than before.
What can people expect from DTH this season?
They can expect to see a large array of genres of dance. I think any audience member will be treated to a wonderful evening of dance when they come to see us. For those that don’t enjoy the classics as much, there’s something for everybody in the program. Come out and see Dance Theatre of Harlem and see the magic that we have to provide for you. Don’t let the idea of ballet scare you away from seeing a classical performance because you will find something you will enjoy.