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When Virginia Johnson auditioned to be a ballerina for the newly created Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, she was already conditioned to steel herself against rejection.


Her longtime teacher, Mary Day, had warned her that major ballet companies were not ready for a Black dancer, especially one as tall as she was.

So, when Arthur Mitchell, a co-founder of the dance company, told her that he "didn't like my dancing, didn't think there's any hope for me, but said we'll see what we can do," she did what she had always done: kept her head up, and kept dancing.


Mitchell was a pioneer in his own right. Already a star at New York City Ballet, he was one of the few Black principal ballet dancers in the world. But he wanted more: a school to expose other Black and Latino kids to ballet and a professional company to offer the most talented a place to excel.

It turned out that Johnson's training had been very different from the style that Mitchell preferred. Despite that, Johnson went on to become a principal ballerina for DTH - the highest rank in a dance company - for 28 years.

She starred in pieces as wide ranging as Giselle and A StreetCar Named Desire, and then pivoted to arts reporting before returning to the Dance Theatre of Harlem as artistic director.


Part of her job involved getting the traveling company back on stage and back on solid financial footing after it shut down for many years.

After more than a decade in that role, Johnson retired from Dance Theatre of Harlem.

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