Today’s Thoughtful Thursday pays tribute to Arthur Mitchell, the founding director of the wonderful Dance Theater of Harlem, who died yesterday at the age of 84. Mitchell, born and raised in Harlem, was the first black ballet dancer to achieve international stardom when he was a principal dancer with The New York City Ballet, where he danced from 1956 to 1968. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. prompted Mitchell to start The Dance Theater in Harlem to enable the children in his community to study ballet. When asked in an interview earlier this year to name his biggest accomplishment, he said “That I actually bucked society, and an art form that was three, four hundred years old, and brought black people into it.”

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rita Dove, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, loves to dance. Her book American Smooth, published in 2004, is filled with poems about the magic of dancing. In an interview held shortly after her book’s release, she noted that ” Poetry is a kind of dance”, and explained:

A dancer toils in order to skim the surface of the floor, she develops muscles most of us
don’t even know we have; but the goal is to appear weightless. A poet struggles to render into
words that which is unsayable–the ineffable, that which is deeper than language–in the hopes
that whatever words make the final cut will, in turn, strike the reader speechless.

Here are a few of Dove’s poems from American Smooth which celebrate the art, struggle, and joy of dance, presented here in honor of Arthur Mitchell. Enjoy.

American Smooth

We were dancing—it must have
been a foxtrot or a waltz,
something romantic but
requiring restraint,
rise and fall, precise
execution as we moved
into the next song without
stopping, two chests heaving
above a seven-league
stride—such perfect agony,
one learns to smile through,
ecstatic mimicry
being the sine qua non
of American Smooth.
And because I was distracted
by the effort of
keeping my frame
(the leftward lean, head turned
just enough to gaze out
past your ear and always
smiling, smiling),
I didn’t notice
how still you’d become until
we had done it
(for two measures?
four?)—achieved flight,
that swift and serene
before the earth
remembered who we were
and brought us down. 

Fox Trot Fridays

Thank the stars there’s a day
each week to tuck in

the grief, lift your pearls, and
stride brush stride

quick-quick with a
heel-ball-toe. Smooth

as Nat King Cole’s
slow satin smile,

easy as taking
one day at a time:

one man and
one woman,

rib to rib,
with no heartbreak in sight–

just the sweep of Paradise
and the space of a song

to count all the wonders in it.


Not the ratcheting crescendo of Ravel’s bright winds
but an older,

passion: a woman with hips who knows when to move them,
who holds nothing back
but the hurt

she takes with her as she dips, grinds, then rises sweetly into
his arms again.

delicate. Not tame. Bessie Smith in a dream of younger,
(Can’t you see?)

days. Restrained in the way a debutante is not, the way a bride
pretends she

How everything hurts! Each upsurge onto a throbbing toe,
the prolonged descent
to earth,

to him (what love & heartache done to me), her body ferocious,
a grim ululation
of flesh–she adores him.

and he savors that adoration, this man in love with looking
she feels his look
his sigh

and she moves with him to the music in the space allotted them
spot lift
across the hardwood floor.