Marcia Sells, BS, JD, was a ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem. She recalls her life before she went to law school, before she worked as a prosecutor, before returning to Columbia University as Dean of the Law School, then as Associate Vice President in the Office of Government and Community Affairs, and Associate Dean of Community Outreach in the School of the Arts.
Q: You danced with Dance Theater of Harlem almost from the beginning. How did that happen?
A: The very first stop of their very first tour was my hometown, Cincinnati. That was in 1969−I think I was about eleven at the time. After being the only black kid in my ballet school for so long, I remember feeling like “Oh my God! Becoming a ballerina is possible for me!” I think that it was because of Dance Theater that the artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet had a talk with my mother, and told her that I really had talent.
Q: What happened then?
A: My mother actually said to him “Don’t play with her. If she really is talented, let’s do it. It’s no good if she can’t explore the full possibilities of it.” I am very fortunate that I had a mother who could say that. I’m very fortunate that my mother had seen ballet, and that she even knew about ballet and put me in ballet classes. I started coming to New York every summer to take classes at Dance Theater. Then I joined the company in 1976.
Q: Would you say that Dance Theater of Harlem is a huge part of the health of the Harlem community?
A: At that time, people didn’t believe that African Americans could dance ballet. Dance Theater proved them wrong. It provided a home for our dancers. Virginia Johnson (former prima ballerina with Dance Theater of Harlem) is trying to help revive the company. I see a lot of young African-American dancers, or young people who are of color, or of mixed race who cannot get a job with the major ballet companies. Talented, gorgeous, great dancers who are not of European descent seldom get leading roles, or are never promoted out of the corps (corps de ballet = similar to a chorus for singers, they only dance in the larger group).