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Cosmopolitan Review: remembering ballerina Tanaquil le Clercq

Yvonne Delaney Mitchell | 2/20/2014, 1:09 p.m.

Deeply depressed, distraught and dismayed, le Clercq finally returned to the States. Eventually, she and Balanchine got a divorce, and while she couldn’t bear to go anywhere near the ballet, it was Mitchell who finally came to her rescue.

Fast-forward to the ’60s. The country was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated. Everyone was still in shock over the death of President John F. Kennedy, and Mitchell, along with his partner, Karl Shook, couldn’t stand by any longer and do nothing. Hence, out of this need, Dance Theatre of Harlem was born.

Classes first began at the studios at St. James Presbyterian Church, where the Harlem School of the Arts first resided under the masterful leadership of soprano artist Dorothy Maynor, and where the company began to form.

A year or two later, Mitchell and Shook found an alternate space that they could call their own—in the basement of Church of the Master. Here, classes in classical ballet were given to the local children as the newly formed company continued to flourish.

How do I know this? I know this because I was among the very young students from the streets of Harlem to learn classical ballet there. Wide-eyed and full of dreams of becoming a prima ballerina myself someday, I attended class every afternoon after school. I loved twirling across the ballet studio floor, learning how to develop an artistry that I didn’t know would carry me far.

One day, this beautiful lady in a wheelchair was rolled in and onto the ballet studio floor. We were introduced by Mitchell, who said something to the effect, “This is Tanaquil le Clercq. She will be your teacher every Tuesday and Thursday. Now places, everyone.”

Le Clercq would demonstrate the steps for us by using her hands while softly counting out the beats. It never occurred to me until I learned from watching the documentary that she had lost the use of one of her hands. Her one good hand was so swift, graceful and precise; no one knew she could only use one. Her ability to emote and her passion for ballet was now encapsulated in the use of her one hand. With a nod of her head to the pianist, which was probably the masterful Tania Leon, the lesson began.

Though that particular episode wasn’t in the film, it did depict how le Clercq continued in later years, how she continued to work with Mitchell and with what had by now become the world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem. She traveled with the company to performances all over the world and continued to teach aspiring ballerinas how to move with grace and style. While my dreams of becoming a ballerina somehow dwindled, le Clercq continued her career by evolving to a higher spiritual plane, a place where there was no longer sorrow, pity or blame.

Many, many years had passed since that romantic episode in my life until the year 2000, when I read in the obituary section of The New York Times that le Clercq had died. She lived so much longer than originally predicted. I felt a deep sadness as my memories all came flooding back. It was also the year that my own dad had died, and to this day, I remember reflecting on how two people who had touched my life in such an impactful and dramatic way had passed on just as we entered the new millennium. For me, it underscored the end of an era.

The film is a poignant tribute to and reflection of an artist who, though physically had fallen downward at the pinnacle of her career, had a spirit that still continued to dance, to live, to soar. Another lesson learned.


We should also remember another hero who, with so much to give humanity, was taken down way before his time, at the pinnacle of his career. The man is Malcolm X. His mission was to teach a culture how to build, love and respect one another and have financial stability for themselves. Near the end of his life, his mission expanded to encompass respect and love for mankind; his quest was for human rights. In his memory, the Malcolm X Museum Annual Commemoration of the Anniversary of the Assassination of Malcolm X/Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz will be held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Friday, Feb. 21 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. By any means necessary.

Until  next week … kisses