The second annual Broadway Ball will be held on December 1 by Columbus State University. Proceeds from the event go towards the school’s flourishing dance program, and this year’s keynote speaker is Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of the famous Duke Ellington.
By Kaleigh Blessard
Everyone knows her family name, but many also recognize Mercedes Ellington for her own staggering artistic career in dance. What began at a young age as a way to correct poor circulation blossomed into a career full of passion, philanthropy, and artistic fulfillment. Ms. Ellington took some time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for us at SVM.
You’ve got quite an impressive career to look back on in which you’ve broken a lot of social and artistic boundaries; what would you say is the highlight of your career? I have two responsibilities. One responsibility is a continuance of my family background, and to work to bring it into the present day so that not only the current generation but future generations will know what has happened and the musical background of not only my family but of our country. Fortunately or unfortunately, the arts do get mixed up with politics somehow, somewhere along the way, and usually the arts are very effective in mending fences, and are used in that way. I like to tell stories, and just informing people. I feel like I have become a historian in the way of just letting people know what I know. And I think that that goes back to tribal times when people were sitting around the fireside telling stories, mixing not only fictional or fable stories, but telling stories of their tribes so history will survive in a sense, and hopefully we learn from history.
How do you think dance has helped to shape your life? I got into dancing because the doctor told my grandmother that my circulation was not what it should be, and I was anemic. My grandmother put me into dancing school at a very early age, and once I started moving in that way, it was infectious. You learn different ways to express yourself, and I was not a very verbal person—of course, you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the way I am now, I talk too much sometimes—but at that time I was not verbal at all, and the best way to express myself was through dance. I came into it at an early age, and I remember one of my first performances was as a snowflake in The Nutcracker Suite. And it was one of the best times of my life that I can remember with some great sense of accomplishment.
Had you had any interest in dance or performing before that? I would always look at the magazines just to see the pictures, even when I couldn’t really read. I would be drawn to look at pictures of dancers, especially ballet dancers at the time, and being drawn to that type of look. I think even now, little girls are drawn to that. And now there are so many choices, even if you’re not going to express yourself in the ballet world, you can have all sorts of modern dance, and nowadays even the dance world is involving acrobatics and all types of dance, so it’s like a mix and match situation. But it’s an exposure to a movement and movement based form of communication.
Was Julliard always your goal? What was that process like, with your education and training in dance? As you well know, there is a certain age restriction in sports and in the dance world so that you only have a certain amount of time when you are in your prime and you are able to respond and your body is able to respond to your commands…it behooved me that I would look for professional work in that field as soon as possible. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to go directly to Broadway, to start auditioning for shows on Broadway and for companies and different things, but my grandfather [and] my father, they had different plans.
There was an expression in those days that everybody needed something to fall back on—now, this was only an expression that was applied to people who had an ambition to go into the arts world. I went to the Metropolitan Opera School, I got a scholarship to go, and from there I went into Julliard, and I didn’t even want to go to Julliard! But that’s when my grandfather said “no, you have to go to get some type of education that you can fall back on.”
What keeps you coming back to performing and dancing? What’s your favorite part of the craft? My favorite part is the stories that you can tell through the dance and the relationships between the people onstage with one another, especially in a theatrical setting. There are two major companies in New York, The New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Of the two companies, I have always preferred American Ballet Theatre because their repertoire consists of many story ballet stories, whereas the New York City Ballet is more technique ballets.
Turning to the event coming up: how did you hear about the Broadway Ball? How did you get involved with that? Well Karyn [Tomczak; CSU dance professor] was the person who really got me interested. I’ve been there before, and I had a wonderful time seeing the work that she’s doing, and that was really inspiring to me. That really is great, because there’s kind of a continuum—it’s not just an educational drop-off when people finish their studies, there is a way that they can segue into making a career for themselves.
What kind of advice do you have for aspiring performers and people who are finishing up their training here? There are a lot of people around who are going to tell you that you cannot do something. Do not listen to people who say that you cannot do anything, or do a specific thing. If it comes into your head that you want to do a specific thing, evidently there’s something in you that is drawn to what you want to do.
There is this idea that brings you to this certain activity, but there’s got to be a need, a specific need. And when people get thwarted from those needs, they become... off. They’re either off mentally, or physically, or they’re frustrated, or unhappy. And I think if you go for it and at least try, at least you explore and see what it is and what’s involved in what you want to do, and then you can make your own choice after that.
When you follow your dreams, you take a responsibility that those are yours, your dreams, and whatever happens, you’re responsible. Take them up, you can change it, pick another path, whatever it is, but it’s your decision ultimately.
In an interview you did several years ago, you said that you don’t have any plans to slow down or retire. As you continue your philanthropic and educational work, what’s next for you? Well, I believe that you can’t hit a moving target. I always tell people, no matter what age they are, to keep moving. Especially dancers! Your dance training is like a computer—when you stop using the computer or any other kind of machine, it gets rusty, it breaks down. And if you stop moving, I believe the body says, “what the hell is going on?” and “why aren’t we moving, why aren’t we doing certain things?” I really believe that the secret to living a more full life is to keep active. Live an active life. SVM