Bear with me, the title will make sense in a bit, but first let me provide some context…
Today, the Department of Dance hosted one of the most iconic figures in dance, Arthur Mitchell. He came and gave us an amazing overview of his incredible life — from growing up on the streets of Harlem, how he found dance, becoming the first Black man to dance with the New York City Ballet (then under the direction of George Balanchine), to when he founded his own, now world-renowned company, the Dance Theater of Harlem. He’s such a beautiful soul, so full of joy and life at the wonderfully seasoned age of 81. (His 82nd birthday is next month, actually!)
He talked so long that we didn’t have much time for questions, but my hand shot up as soon as we were able. I thought of this last night: How do we change the perception surrounding dance in the Black community and engage more Black youth in ways that encourage them to pursue dance professionally. So often, there is this perception that dance is not good enough for us. We have to achieve more, do better, and prove ourselves to society. “Anybody can dance. We need more Black doctors, lawyers, etc.” is what I’ve been told. I asked Mr. Mitchell about this, and he told me that “you just that you have to make up your mind for yourself. You set the example.”
In a blessed coincidence, I happened to be at the elevator at the same time that he and one of his dancers, Paunika Jones, were being escorted back to their car. Paunika started chatting with me further about my question, and we ended up walking out of the building together. She then proceeded to blow my mind and challenge every single perception of myself that I have. She asked me if I was taking the ballet class that Mr. Mitchell was teaching later today. I told her no, and she asked why not. I said, laughing, “Oh, I’m not a ballet dancer!”
She looked at me and said, “Do you hear yourself?” I stopped and was immediately blown away by the way in which I was refuting myself. Ballet is inextricable from all classical forms of dance. I do ballet here in my studies at OSU. I grew up in the ballet technique. So why do I label myself? Why do I put myself in a box? That’s part of the problem, Paunika told me (in reference to engaging Blacks in dance). We tell ourselves that we can’t do things; we limit ourselves in our minds. Just because something isn’t my greatest talent, doesn’t mean I’m incapable of doing it.
I found myself tearing up. My biggest fight since I’ve been in dance has been overcoming myself. My insecurities about my body, about my technique, about my inadequacies — no one has ever given them to me. They have all been dredged up and put on by me. Mr. Mitchell said today in his talk that we can be anything that we want to be. We just have to work to be our best selves at it…
My name is Kylee Cedreice Smith. I am a Black dancer…
& a contemporary dancer
& a modern dancer
& a ballet dancer
& a choreographer
& a writer
whatever else I ever want to be.
No more limits. No more, “I can’t.” Starting today.
Thank you OSUdance, for continually bringing me these opportunities that change me and allow me to grow in invaluable ways. Thank you to Arthur Mitchell for sharing, & thank you to Paunika Jones for taking a few minutes of your time to be a true mentor.
Me & the Legend, Arthur Mitchell.