Celebrating African American Women & Dance


Mrs. Obama: Well, look
at everyone here! (laughter) Fancy meeting you
all here! We’ve got a little bit of
everybody. Surprise! Well, hello,
everyone. Audience: Hello! Mrs. Obama: What are you
guys doing over there? You still having fun? Audience: Yes. Mrs. Obama: That’s good. Well, I am thrilled that all
of you are here today to help us celebrate Black
History Month at the White House. (applause) Let me start by
thanking a few people. I want to thank the White
House Initiative on Educational Excellence for
African Americans for making this event possible. Let’s give them a round of
applause. (applause) I want to thank
La La Anthony who was here earlier today. She moderated our panel. (applause) La La is amazing,
isn’t she? She gave you all some words
of wisdom that were — I hope you all were listening. I also want to recognize the
dance icons who are gracing us with their presence
today: Debbie Allen, Virginia Johnson, Fatima
Robinson, and Judith Jamison. (applause) We are all honored —
honored — to have you here at
the White House. This has just been
an amazing day. And you all have been
working your tails off. Debbie was like, “my back!” (laughter) So you all are
amazing. Thank you for this. We could not have done it
without you and your tremendous teams. So thank you. And to the teams who were
here, you guys did it today. Did it. Thank you all. (applause) But most of all,
I want to give a very special shout-out to the 51
remarkable young performers who I had the pleasure of
getting to know earlier today. We had some fun. They asked some great
questions. They are amazing. These are girls from right
here in Washington, D.C., and they spent the
morning studying with these living legends of dance. And in just a few minutes
they’re going to perform for us all. (applause) And if I’m right,
they’re performing — they just learned everything
today. So this is like — so, you
all, don’t be nervous. You all have been here. This is fun stuff. But I peaked in after our
panel; I saw some of you all. Who did I see? Which group was that that I
saw — you guys in the back. I peaked in. They’re ready. They are ready. So we’re excited to
have them. (applause) Today is a very
special day at the White House, and it’s pretty
special for me personally because I absolutely love
dance. Absolutely love it. I think it’s probably my
favorite art form. In fact, for years, Judith’s
picture from “Cry” was the only piece of art that
Barack and I had in our first condominium. We thought we were doing
something. We had Judith on the wall. (laughter) Thank you. And after Barack’s
inauguration, our family’s first trip to
the Kennedy Center was for the — Alvin Ailey’s 50th
anniversary performance. And we try to get there
almost every year — we missed this year, we missed
last year — but we are regulars at Alvin Ailey. And while I’m certainly
not a professional, I took dance lessons,
I told you guys, when I was sort of like
in middle school. But, as you know, I never
pass up the opportunity to, you know, show some moves
every now and then. (laughter) So to actually
host all these extraordinary dancers today, this is
really a dream come true for me. But today isn’t just a
special day for me, it’s really a special day
for our entire country. Because for nearly 50 years,
the women who are gracing us here today have been driving
a force in the — they’ve been a driving force in the
cultural life of this nation. From tribal rhythms to
freedom songs, from modern dance to hip
hop, their work has stirred our
souls and ignited our imagination. Through dance, they have
told the stories of who we were, who we are, and who we
can be. And during Black History
Month, that’s really what we
celebrate — we celebrate the people who have shaped
our heritage. We remember those who
struggled for our rights and our freedoms, and we reflect
on how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to
go. And when it comes to the
world of dance, we have come such a very
long way. After all, it wasn’t that
long ago that many major ballet companies wouldn’t
hire black dancers. We talked about that today. And the few dancers who were
hired were sometimes asked to wear white pancake makeup
to hide their face from the audience. Some of the women on — who
are with us today felt the sting of that discrimination
firsthand. Debbie Allen shared with us
that she was turned away from the Houston Ballet
Foundation because she was black. Virginia Johnson’s teacher
told her that a black woman would never find a job in
ballet. And when Judith Jamison
first came to dance with Alvin Ailey, they were so
strapped for cash that Alvin Ailey could sometimes only
afford to pay his dancers with Thank You cards. But these women didn’t let
any of this discourage them or knock them off their
path. Debbie just kept on
auditioning until the Houston Ballet Foundation
accepted her as its first black student. Virginia didn’t just get a
job for herself in ballet — she helped form the Dance
Theater of Harlem and launched the careers of
countless black dancers. (applause) And as for
Judith, well, she decided that the thank
you cards would have to do, but she also helped build
Alvin Ailey into the powerhouse it is today,
because, as she put it — and this is
what she shared with these girls today — she said, “If
the door isn’t open, you have to make your own
door.” And because of the doors
that these women have made, because of the examples they
set, today, a black woman named Misty
Copeland is a principal dancer in the American
Ballet Theater. (applause) A phenomenal
black woman named Fatima Robinson who choreographed a
Michael Jackson video at the age of 21 is now directing
the biggest artists in the music industry. (applause) And today, just
two generations later, 51 beautiful black girls are
at the White House, and they’ll be dancing right
here in front of George and Martha. (laughter and applause) So as we said
this morning, you all are the living
legacy of these remarkable women. We said that. Your presence here today is
very much the result of the risks they took, because of
the sacrifices they made, and the grinding hard work
they put in hour after hour, year after year, rehearsing
until their bodies ached and their lungs burned, and they
never wanted to put on that leotard again. That was the only way to
succeed, especially in a world where
the odds were stacked against them. And more than anything else,
that’s really my message to all of the young people here
and all the young people watching that you all need
to show that same kind of education and discipline. We talked about this today
— not just in dancing, but in every part of your
life, especially when it comes to
school and getting your education. Because no matter what you
do with your lives — whether it’s dance or
anything that you do with a passion — you’re going to
have to be at your very best. And education — that
foundation. And it’s going to take
practice and hard work. That means that you’ve got
to do everything again and again. So you’ve got an essay to
write — draft after draft, you’re going to have to
write and edit. Got to work on that. It means math problems, you
have to do them over and over again until you get
every single one of them right. It means doing your very
best and being your very best every single day. Like La La said, being a
good person, not being late, showing up on time and being
prepared. Because ultimately, that’s
how we break down barriers. That’s how we move this
country forward — we fight for the opportunity to
succeed. And we prepare ourselves to
seize the opportunity and shine when that moment comes
— whether that’s on stage, in the courtroom, the
boardroom; whether it’s on the play
field, the battleground — wherever
it is you guys want to go, to get there, you have to be
prepared and you have to be at your best. And make no mistake about it
— that work is far from over. Because that struggle for
equality and opportunity didn’t end with these women
here. Anyone who turns on the news
today knows that we still have a long way to go. But standing here today in
this room with all these amazing legends and all
these wonderful women, so many of them are powerful
in their own right. Looking out at these
beautiful, talented young women, I know
that we have the power to keep reaching higher and
defying the odds, and achieving those firsts,
and seconds, and thirds, and hundreds, and thousands
until a black principal dancer is no longer a cause
for headlines. And our children are limited
only by the size of their dreams and their willingness
to work for them. And this Black History
Month, I am so proud to celebrate
those who inspire us along this journey, those who
paved the paths in which we still walk and who set the
standards to which we aspire. To these girls here, the
legacy — that legacy is truly your greatest
inheritance. It really is. And it’s not just in these
women — it’s in all the role models that we talked
about that you have to cultivate over the course of
your life. We are with you all. We are proud of you. We are excited to see you
take your place not just on this stage, but in the
course of making change in this country. You all are our next
generation. We talked about that, too. So I don’t want you all to
be nervous. You’re home. This stage is like your
home. This house is yours. So have fun, you know? Have fun. (applause) It’s going to
be good. (laughter) We’re proud
of you. Everybody here is proud
of you, right? Audience: Yes! (applause) Mrs. Obama: And
we’ve got your backs. (applause) And with that, I
am going to turn things over to Debbie Allen, who is
going to come up and get things started. Yes, you’re next. We’re going to strike the
podium and we’re going to get to dancing. All right, you all, thank
you so much. (applause) That was a kickball change. (laughter) Okay, so first of all we
want to say thank you so much to Mrs. Obama for your
generosity. (applause) Your sincerity, your
graciousness, your unending mission to
reach back and bring all these young women along. You’ve been doing this since
before you were First Lady. I know. I’ve been here before and I
just love you so much for that. So, here we are, and yes,
the presentation, the demonstration you’re
going to see today was something that we created in
the moment, in all of an hour and a half
of a classroom exercise. This is art in its best, in
the moment. Everyone is present. There’s no room to go out or
think about anything else, and that we’re celebrating
with dance is so appropriate because dance is truly the
universal language in this world, and I know. I’ve been all over the
world, as has Judy (inaudible),
Virginia, Fatima, and where we don’t speak the
same language or even know we’re praying to the same
God, we are dancing to that beat,
that one, the one, the one that comes from the
mother continent, Africa, and it’s beautiful that
we’re celebrating with dance, because dance has
defined so much in this world today. I went to the Middle East
and I was told, “Oh, they don’t do that kind of
dancing here. No, it’s not allowed.” Child, they were break
dancing. They were hopping and
bouncing off walls. (laughter) It is the universal language
and we speak it everywhere. So, we’re going to start
with something that is African dona mask
(inaudible), that is African dance, and
Ms. Katherine Dunham, who was certainly one of my
great mentors, as all the ladies sitting
here. So ladies, you want to get
into place? We have Ms. Sarah Marshal
(inaudible) here who’s a master. I brought my red birds from
the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, and these are the
beautiful young ladies from the greater
Washington D.C. area — (applause) — who have practiced, and
we’re going to get going. ♪ drums ♪ Male Speaker: Ladies and
gentlemen, Judith Jamison. (applause) Judith Jamison: Hallelujah. If you all didn’t hear that,
I said hallelujah. We just had church. Didn’t we? (applause) Oh, my goodness. Well, there’s more to come. Debbie, wear it out, Debbie. That leg was still up there. Thank you, Mrs. Obama, so
much again. You know, I’m just going to
park here or something. You’ve had us here so many
times and so many young people here so many times. Thank you so much for all
you do for all of us, but especially these young
women today. Thank you, thank you, thank
you. (applause) I need to say hello to a
friend of yours, a woman named Deborah Lee
(inaudible), who happens to be here. I have to mention her
because she’s on my board. Well, I can’t say my board
anymore. I’m (inaudible) our
district director, and thank you very much for
being the president of our board, and you know, we just
closed the Kennedy Center, which we opened in 1970. So, the legacy continues,
and I stand here for this wonderful man named Alvin
Ailey, and also for a man named
Robert Battle who is the current artistic director of
the Alvin Ailey. (applause) We had a ball doing this in
this hour and a half, and the dancers, Rachel
McClarin (inaudible) and Jackie Green (inaudible). There they are over there in
the corner. You’ll see them in a bit,
and Lida Celeste Sims (inaudible) is over there in
the corner, a 20 year veteran of the
company and a Latina. (applause) You know. I must thank you very much,
but it’s just an honor to be around all of you. You know, your energy is our
energy. You are what makes us feel
like we’ve done something. You know what I mean? It makes us feel
accomplished, like we actually passed
something along, and Mr. Ailey was about this
all the time, in forming the company in
1958. The first performance as
being Blues Suite (inaudible) and Revelations,
which you’re going to see a part of soon, but this man
was a real miracle when he embraced all people, but all
people of color in particular because we had no
place to dance. We had no place to dance. We could not see our images
long ago, and now we’re all over the
place, aren’t we? Isn’t that wonderful? But still not all over as
much as we should be, and in the ways that we want
to be. So, today is a joy to know
that someone who had a vision of celebrating the
African American cultural expression, and experience
of our country, and the modern dance
tradition of our country combined that, and formed
this glorious company called Alvin Ailey American Dance
Theater, which now I’m doing an
advertisement. I can’t help it, but I’m so
proud because it’s — look, this is my work. What can I say. Seventy-seven thousand
square feet of a building in New York City which belongs
to us. We built it. We own it and we have an
endowment for it, 77, 000 square feet. (applause) That’s also a hallelujah,
but that’s part of you. That’s part of you. Some of the dancers in the
Ailey come from the D.C. area, Renee Robinson
(inaudible), a 30 year veteran. We’ve got [unintelligible]
sitting over here. This man is [unintelligible]
Japan. He’s been with the company
since 1972. He is the associate artistic
director of Alvin Ailey. (applause) I have to mention him. All of these people here
have helped — all of you, I’m so proud to have met
you, Fatima. I didn’t know you before,
but I celebrated your work, and I thank you so much for
that. Virginia, I’ve known you for
a long time. Such an extraordinary
ballerina, and Debbie and I go back
forever. And I love it. I absolutely love it. What company to be in when
you’re a dancer, you know, when you’re a dancer, when
you’re an artist and you get invited to the White House. Thank you again. All right, are we ready? Are we ready, because I
didn’t want to read any of this. This says something about,
oh yes, the U.S. Congressional resolution as
a vital American cultural ambassador to the world. They said that about us. You’re a part of this
legacy. Are you ready to go? Are you ready to do? (applause) Dancers are ready to do
“I’ve Been Buked, ” from Revelations,
choreographed by Mr. Ailey, a world famous dance that’s
been done all over the world. Everybody knows it and
enjoys it, and I’m so happy that you
get a chance to do this with Rachel and Jackie. “I’ve Been Buked,” from
Revelations. (applause) [singing] (applause) ♪ choir music ♪ Judith Jamison: And the
second piece that we’re doing is a
piece called “Cry, ” that was created in 1971. It’s a tour de force
dedicated to all black women, especially our
mothers, created by Mr. Ailey for
his mother. It was his birthday
present to her. Leading the dancers in the
third section, Voices of East Harlem,
“Ride On, Be Free, ” will be Linda Celeste
Sims (inaudible). Thank you, dancers. ♪ Ride on, Be Free playing ♪ (applause) Male Speaker: Ladies and
gentlemen, Virginia Johnson. Virginia Johnson: Good
afternoon. What a joy. What a delight to see these
young faces, the spark in their eyes, and
the pride that we’re seeing from their experience today. Mrs. Obama, thank you. You have created an
amazing event. When Arthur Mitchell created
Dance Theatre of Harlem almost 47 years ago, his
idea was not to make dancers. He wanted to do something to
change the lives of the young people of Harlem. This is the 1968, 1969. Their lives had
been written off. There was no future for
them. The schools were failing
them. There was a lot of poverty. There was no way for them to
have a better life, and Arthur Mitchell said to
himself, “I’m going to teach them as
art form. I’m going to teach them
classical ballet, because you know when you
study classical ballet you learn something about life
that’s very valuable. You learn that you have to
put the time in. You have to focus. You have to have that
discipline, and you have to know that
you start here, and it may take you years to
get there, but you do get there.” He thought that that lesson
was more important than anything else he could do,
and so he opened Dance Theater of Harlem School,
and he had 409 students. This art form of classical
ballet, it’s a beautiful, beautiful way of using your
body, but it actually is something
about shaping your spirit and moving yourself forward,
and having that goal, and putting in the work to
make it happen. So, It’s been my pleasure to
be a part of this company for many, many years. I am actually a
Washingtonian. I grew up over here in
northeast, and I had a wonderful
opportunity to study here. So, it means a lot for me to
be here at the White House today, talking about the
power of art to transform lives. (applause) So, today we’re going to
show you a work that was created by our resident
choreographer, Robert Garland, who’s here,
and he created it for the Dance Theatre of Harlem
Company. (applause) When we found out about
this wonderful event, Robert said, “Oh, let’s
do New Bach. I’ll make a special
arrangement.” So, today we’re working with
two schools that I actually had the chance to work with
as a young person here, the Jones Haywood School and
the Washington Ballet at the Arc, and so today we’re
going to see a shortened version of Robert Garland’s
“New Bach,” choreography, Robert Garland, music by
Joanna Stock (inaudible). (applause) ♪ New Bach playing ♪ Male Speaker: Ladies and
gentlemen, Fatima Robinson. (applause) Fatima Robinson:
Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you so much. I am so happy and proud to
be here and part of this event. Thank you, Mrs. Obama, for
inviting me and making me a part of these wonderful
pioneers. I feel so blessed to be in
your presence. So, thank you so much. I am one of the kind of
founders of hip hop dance, and what I love about hip
hop dance is when I started dancing in the clubs growing
up as a teenager and just loving dance, when I
realized this was going to be my career, I started
taking African dance. And when I took African
dance and realized that all I was doing was African
dance reformed in a different way, but — (applause) — the beauty about the hip
hop — you know, African dance had meaning to
it. It told stories with the
dance and I was so happy that I was actually doing
something that felt so close to home and my ancestors. So, that’s what I love about
hip hop dance, and I love that starting
out. In the beginning of my
career, I was really on a mission to
get people to understand hip hop dance and see it as a
true art form of dance. You know, people thought it
was going to be gone in five years, and off and away, but
it’s really evolved to the mainstream popular dance
that we do today. You see so many people or so
many young women like you making up dances in your
bedroom with your friends, on the streets, and all
those dances you’re posting on social media, on YouTube
and Snapchat, and people are taking
notice. And the whole world begins
to do the dances that you guys create. And I really, really am
proud of hip hop dance, and what we’ve done, and how
everyone internationally everywhere, all over the
world is dancing hip hop. So today my young ladies, we
decided to do a piece from “The Wiz Live,” that I
choreographed recently, and — (applause) — the original
choreographer, George Faison, I was so
honored to be part of this wonderful legacy, this
wonderful piece of art and dance, and today we’re going
to do “Brand New Day.” Yes? (applause) ♪ Brand New Day playing ♪ Mrs. Obama: Wow! I was ready for more! I was all in, like we
were in The Wiz! It was going to take
us there! Let’s give our dancers a
round of applause. (applause) Wow! Wow! (applause) We’re applauding
for you all, you don’t have to stand up. Can you believe this was a
couple hours’ worth of work? I mean, you all are stars. What did it — we had
conversations this morning — we had conversations
about confidence and role models and education and
nutrition. And one of the questions
was, what do I say to my
daughters to help them build confidence? What kind of conversations
— really good, deep questions, by the way. But what you all just did
today, showing up at the White
House, learning from dancing
legends, and then coming out in front
of the media and performing like that? Excuse me, there is
absolutely nothing you all cannot do. (applause) I mean, come on,
ladies! Know that! This had to be one of the
hardest things you were asked to do, and you all
threw it down, every last one of you. I am so proud of you. I could be crying right now,
but I’ve got to wrap this up and keep it together. (laughter) You all are
amazing. And it has been just an
honor and a privilege for all of the team here at the
White House to host you all. And to our icons, our
legends — oh, ladies, thank you for this. I told Debbie, I said, can
we do this again next week? Can you come back next week? (laughter) (applause) And to the entire
team, everyone — all the choreographers
and dancers, all the staff who helped
bring this together — thank you, thank you, thank you
for dedicating so much time to these young ladies. I know that this day will
impact their lives forever. And that’s what we’re trying
to do. So thank you. And I also want to
acknowledge — I know we have parents and friends and
teachers. Let’s give families a round
of applause, you all! (applause) Why don’t you all
stand up, our parents, our family members. (applause) Grandparents,
we’ve got a few in here. All right, so I’m going to
hook you all up — so just remember when they act a
little rough, remember they got you into
the White House. (laughter) So maybe a little
— just a little leeway. We also talked about the
role models that these young girls have in the people
that surround them — their family members, their
parents and grandparents and siblings, and all the
teachers and instructors that are in their lives. You all have done a
phenomenal job with these young ladies. They carry themselves today
with poise and grace and maturity. They were phenomenal, and
you have every reason to be proud. And I know, as a mother, you
want to hear that from strangers. (laughter) They behaved
themselves today. They made you proud. And to everyone here, thank
you. Thank you for supporting
these young people. Thank you for supporting the
art of dance. Let’s remember these
companies are out there. They need our support. They need our attendance. They need our love and
encouragement every step of the way. (applause) Happy Black
History Month to everyone. (applause) Enjoy the month. You all keep studying and
working hard. Let’s not just celebrate
Black History Month in February, let’s celebrate it
every single day of every single year for ever and
ever and ever. (applause) We have
contributed so much to this nation and to this planet. And we have to make sure
that our young people understand where they come
from and how valuable they are, how valuable that
history is, so that they know they have
a solid foundation upon which to soar. And these young people are
doing it. There are millions of young
people just like them out here, and that’s the beauty
of the arts and why we have to support it, why we have
to have it in our schools, why we have to make sure
that every kid has access to it — because there are
millions of kids just like them with the same kind of
talent and energy and potential and drive who do
not get to do it because it’s not available, their
families can’t afford it. We can’t afford to waste
that kind of talent. So we as a nation have to
put our energies and resources into bringing arts
into the lives of every kid in every neighborhood
regardless of income, race, background, religion, what
have you. This is an absolutely
necessity. (applause) So let us leave
here today all filled with warmness and pride and all
that good stuff. It was just a pleasure to
host this here at the White House. Yay for us. (applause) You guys, take care. Enjoy. We love you. God bless. (applause)

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