Cecilia Mitchell was only 3 when she began taking dance lessons in her Montclair hometown.
Now 22, and newly-graduated from Stockton University with a degree in dance, her childhood passion is evolving into a career. She is versatile in modern, ballet, contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, improvisation and more.
“I like to say that dance is what gets me up in the morning,” said Mitchell, a lifelong Montclair resident.
The middle child of immigrants from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Mitchell is starting her career as many in the dance industry are putting the spotlight on the lack of diversity in the profession. Black women, especially, have been historically underrepresented in the dance world.
A story in the Washington Post last year on the “glass ceiling” in dance discussed the inequities, while noting the industry seems to be slowly changing. Recently, there were four appointments of Black female dancers into management positions in primarily white dance companies.
The appointments — including Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, the new artistic director of Hubbard Street Chicago — were in contrast to longstanding obstacles facing Black female dancers, the report said. Many dancers who wanted to rise to management roles said they typically had to choose between starting their own companies or succeeding the founders of majority-Black dance companies.
Mitchell, who graduated in May, said she wants to “educate and help the younger generation of Black dancers of color, let them know they can do whatever they want.”
“What should matter is the passion they have in their heart for whatever they do,” she said.
“As a minority myself, I don’t feel like we get as many opportunities as other people. One of the things that I’ve learned at Stockton from my teachers, number one, is anything is possible, anything is attainable, and that everything we do should be inclusive,” Mitchell said.
It is unclear how diverse the professional dance world is because most industry studies do not compile race or ethnicity data about those working in the field. However, one survey is tracking how many women are in management.
Female artistic directors led 29 percent of dance companies with an annual budget of $1 million or more in 2017, according to a study by Dance/USA, a national organization for professional dancers.
Sensitivity to inclusion is also altering some longstanding practices. Until fairly recently, ballet tights had almost universally been pink, aimed to meld with the skin tone of white dancers, explained Rain Ross, associate professor of dance at Stockton.
It was an approach that inevitably left Black dancers feeling left out.
“Historically, dance, like everywhere else, has been systemically racist,” Ross said.
Ross, who is white, said the placement of additional Black women in key management positions will have a positive impact on dance.
“When we put underrepresented people in these positions, they have a tendency to also pull other people up,” Ross said.
Mitchell spent last week in Maine at the Bates Dance Festival — a high-profile gathering of choreographers, performers and educators in its 40th year — to take three classes per day and network.
She was taking classes in dance improvisation, theater performing and Afro Fusion, focusing on West African movements and contemporary dance.
She will return to her hometown studio — Sharron Miller’s Academy for the Performing Arts in Montclair — where she’ll be teaching creative movement and pre-ballet to students ages 3 and 4.
From there, Mitchell said she’s not certain what is next, but her ambitions include performing in different countries. She traveled to Greece, as a Stockton senior, and performed as part of the Early Jewish Agricultural Settlements Exhibition at the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle.
“I really, really want to dance professionally. I’m not sure what that means right now. I want that to be my job,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell hails from a family of athletes. Her two brothers are professional soccer players — Ernest, 23, is with Albion San Diego, and Roald, 19, is slated to join the New York Red Bulls in 6 months.
Her father, Cecil, was 19 when he moved to the United States with a track scholarship to Villanova University. Her mother, Rolda, specialized in “netball,” a sport resembling basketball that originated in Great Britain and is played in many nations that were once part of the British Empire. She was 18 when she arrived in the US and eventually met her future husband.
“My parents tried putting me in track, in soccer, in basketball,” Mitchell said, adding that none of the sports approached her interest in dance.
“I found that love and passion for it,” she said.
Mitchell said dancing has helped her deal with diabetes. She was diagnosed at age 7 with Type 1 Diabetes, a chronic condition in which the immune system destroys the cells producing insulin.
“It does get annoying, sometimes, when blood sugar does run low, in the middle of class,” she said.
“I had to find ways to not let the disease take over me. I like to use dance as a way to monitor my diabetes and make sure my levels are an appropriate level,” Mitchell said.
While she has begun singing, too — “right now it’s more of a hobby that I do on my own,” she explained — dance remains her enduring constant.
“Most of us dancers, when we’re performing, we’re talking with our body,” she said.
“I value the art of dance so much. It’s a way for people to express themselves without talking, without verbal communication. You go to parties, you go to wedding, we dance. What does it show? It shows expression. It brings happiness.”
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Rob Jennings may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.