Black History Month Celebrated Through Dance at the White House

February 29, 2016 by
Filed Under: Blog, Dancing in the News

The Obamas kicked off 2016’s Black History Month with a dance celebration in the White House. First lady Michelle Obama lead the event that invited 51 young black women to participate in a day of dance workshops and to showcase their talents.

The dancing students were chosen from the Washington D.C. area and experienced a day filled with master classes of ballet, modern, hip-hop, and African dance. Dance icons Debbie Allen, Fatima Robinson, Judith Jamison, and Virginia Johnson taught the dance workshops. The day wrapped up with the young dancers performing what they had learned that day for Michelle in the White House’s Blue Room.

This year, the White House designated the theme of Black History Month as “Honoring the Past While Celebrating the Present; 7 Years of Living African American History.” This theme was present in the day of dance and highlighted in the included panel of discussion with Michelle Obama, the workshop dance instructor icons, and actress Lala Anthony. As part of the dance celebration, Michelle Obama highlighted the contributions African American women have made to dance, specifically as using the stories of the invited dance icons teaching at the event as examples.

dance celebration at the white houseMichelle opened the ending ceremony with an inspiring speech. She recognized the dance legends invited to teach as being some of the women twho for nearly 50 years drove the force in the cultural life of the nation and of their heritage through tribal rhythms, freedom songs, and a variety of types of dance. Michelle described them as using dance to tell the stories of “who we were, who we are, and who we can be.” Michelle commended that this is what the nation celebrates during Black History Month; recognizing cultural heritage and how far we have come and how much more we have yet to achieve. Michelle shared that it wasn’t too long ago that Black dancers were not hired to major dance companies, and if they were ever hired, they sometimes would have to wear pancake make-up to hide their faces. The featured dance legends at the White House’s celebration all shared experiencing discrimination in their dance careers and opportunities because they were black. Instructor Debbie Allen was turned away from the Houston Ballet Foundation because she was black. Teacher Virginia Johnson was told by her dance teacher that she would never find a job in ballet because she was black. Judith Jameson danced with Alvin Ailey who was so strapped for cash often had to pay the black dance company performers with thank you cards. These same women became an example of perseverance and change as they fought to continue in their careers and paved the way for African American dancers to come. Debbie continued to audition until the Houston Ballet Foundation accepted her as their first black student. Virgina Johnson opened her own dance theatre in Harlem and launched the careers of many black dancers. Judith Jameson continued to help build Alvin Ailey Dance Company into the powerhouse dance company that it is today.

The opening speech by Michelle continued to recognize the progress that has been made while encouraging the 51 young dancers and the rest of the nation to continue to persevere to make more progress. Michelle pointed out that Misty Copeland is a principle dancer in the American Ballet Theatre today. Michelle noted that while great progress has been made, she hopes that progress is made until a black principle dancer is no longer a reason for headlines.

Overall the White House’s dance celebration was a very positive event for the world of dance, Black History Month, and the social and cultural progress of the nation.

Article by Ziva