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Dance Theatre of Harlem comes to Weber

Image from Andrew Barrett Watson

Dance Theatre of Harlem was at the top of Onstage Ogden’s “acts to get to Ogden” wish-list. With the help of Browning Presents!, the Dance Theatre of Harlem performed at Weber State University on Nov. 9.

“Onstage Ogden use our facilities often, so this was a great benefit for our students,” said Erik Stern, a WSU dance professor. “It gave them an opportunity to interact with professionals prominent in their field.”

The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in New York City in 1969 during the height of the civil rights movement by the late Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook, according to the act’s website.

Mitchell created a haven for dancers of color who craved training and performance experience, giving dancers the opportunity to excel in a world of classical ballet. He wanted people of color to see themselves on stage and recognize that anyone could tap into the art.

Andrew Barrett Watson, who works with Onstage Ogden, said Dance Theatre of Harlem had been on their wish-list of companies to come visit Ogden.

“They’re an amazing professional company,” Watson said. “These dancers are at the top of their career And perform all over the world. Having them come to Ogden really gives the community a chance to enjoy this unique experience.”

In addition to the company’s visits, WSU dance students had the opportunity to attend a master class taught by company member, Christopher Charles McDaniel.

Jonathan Guerra, a WSU dance major, attended the master class.

“I’ve heard great things about the company, so I was excited to learn about whatever he was willing to teach us,” Guerra said. “I was really excited to gain experience and get a new perspective from a professional.”

McDaniel has been a company member for three years. Coincidentally, the first time McDaniel saw ballet was a Dance Theatre of Harlem production.

McDaniel started dancing at age 6 and delved into ballet at age 10. McDaniel’s training includes: Dance Theatre of Harlem School, LaGuardia School of Preforming Arts, Ballet Academy East, Boston Ballet and Jacob’s Pillow.

Beyond his previous training, McDaniel and his fellow Dance Theatre of Harlem School classmates were required to study various styles of dance including jazz, tap, gymnastics, African Dance and character dancing.

Image from Andrew Barrett Watson Photo credit: Andrew Barrett Watson

“Arthur Mitchell wanted us to have the most well-rounded training, so we did all styles,” McDaniel said. “There’s no one quite like Arthur Mitchell, so being taught by him was often really scary.”

McDaniel described Mitchell as a “no-nonsense” type of person, explaining that Mitchell would let dancers know when they were wrong. However, McDaniel said Mitchell “had this amazing way of encouraging you when you got something right.”

McDaniel recounted the lengths Mitchell would have to go through to for his dancers. There was a time when the company would go to venues and would be expected to go through service entrances because the dancers were black. Often, stage hands would refuse to pull the curtain for the dancers because of the color of their skin.

“Mitchell was so hard on his dancers because there was a level that had to be met,” McDaniel said. “I wouldn’t say we’re more relaxed now, but the stakes aren’t as high. We’ve already proven the facts, and now we’re just keeping his message and his vision going.”

For their WSU performance, Dance Theatre of Harlem performed the four pieces “Orange,” “Change,” “This Bitter Earth” and “Balamouk.” Despite constant performances, McDaniel appreciates how ballet keeps him on his toes.

“With ballet, I like that you’re never going to get it right; it’s never going to be perfect. You always have something to strive for, so it never gets boring. There’s always something to work on,” McDaniel said. “I like having the option to use my body to say what I have to say, without being vocal, and I like that ballet takes me all over the world.”

Beyond performing with Dance Theatre of Harlem, McDaniel began teaching dance in 2011. He credits his instructors for his love of teaching and the approach he takes when teaching. McDaniel would watch as Mitchell taught, noting how Mitchell would catch mistakes and what he would do to fix them.

McDaniel loved the feeling of controlling a room full of students. He said his students were hungry to learn technique.

“I was using all of the things I had learned from Ballet Academy East and Darla Hoover and mixing it with the sense of pride and commanding the room that Arthur Mitchell taught me and fused them together. That’s when I found a natural flow with teaching,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel hopes to be a ballet master and an artistic director and remind the world that dance is for everybody.

“Yes we want to add technique and pedagogy and all of that wonderful stuff, but a part of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s mission and my own personal mission is whoever I teach needs to know that they are in the right place, at the right time and it’s okay to just enjoy it,” McDaniel said. “I want to reintroduce people to that side of simplicity and happiness.”

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