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Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Dance Theater of Harlem Star, Dies at 74

When Gayle McKinney-Griffith was an aspiring ballerina auditioning for Juilliard in the late 1960s, her excitement was tempered by a daunting realization.

“When you walk into a room and you’re the only Black person there,” she later said, “you right away develop this persona that is protective but also standing strong. You’re used to thinking two things at once: ‘Yes, I’m the only Black person here,’ and ‘Yes, let’s do this.’”

That attitude not only helped her gain admittance to the elite arts institution; it also carried her through a nine-year career as a founding member of Dance Theater of Harlem, the groundbreaking New York troupe that provided overdue opportunities and international acclaim to Black ballet performers.

As was the case with many dancers with the company in the early years, Ms. McKinney-Griffith’s accomplishments faded over time, and her death on Oct. 11 was not widely reported. She died of cancer at 74 at her home in Quaker Hill, Conn., her daughter, Khadija T. Griffith, said.

Ms. McKinney-Griffith’s stay at Juilliard turned out to be brief. She left the school in 1968 to join Arthur Mitchell, the first African American principal dancer at New York City Ballet and a global star, to join the daring new troupe he was starting with his former instructor, the ballet master Karel Shook.

Ms. McKinney-Griffith served not only as a principal dancer at Dance Theater of Harlem but also as the company’s first ballet mistress. In that position, now known as rehearsal director, she was Mr. Mitchell’s top lieutenant, responsible for running rehearsals, coaching dancers on choreography, helping with casting and other tasks.

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