In the region of North Carolina where I grew up, there was only one place where you could buy dance supplies—and that place was Ms. Betty Novak’s Dance Shop.
It was a tiny store, barely bigger than a supply closet, with rows of cardboard boxes filled with Capezio tights, Danskin unitards, everything a young dancer might need.
I went to the shop one day with my mom. I was about 12 years old. I noticed a framed photograph on the wall—and my eyes widened. It was a tall, lean, gorgeous man in a striking pose. He was black, just like me. He looked regal and majestic. I pointed at the photo, mesmerized.
“Who is that?” I asked.
Ms. Betty explained, “That’s Mel Tomlinson.” She told me that Mel was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, the same place as me, and he was only black man in the New York City Ballet when George Balanchine invited him into the company in 1981. He also danced for Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Boston Ballet, and North Carolina Dance Theatre.
I had a million questions about Mel. I wanted to know everything! I’d never seen anyone like him before.
Up until that point, most of the black men I saw represented in the media (especially in the dance world) were hip hop and tap dancers. I admired these dancers, and yet, they didn’t resonate with me like Mel did. Seeing that photo of him—with his long lines, his grace and elegance—it was the first time I saw an image of an artist and thought, “That’s who I want to be.”
A few years later, as a young performer at my home dance studio, North Carolina Dance Institute, I had the opportunity to take a masterclass with Mel. Ninety minutes of training with my hero (thanks to my mentor Kirstie Tice-Spadie). Literally a dream come true. I arrived at the studio early (of course) and my stomach shimmered with nervous excitement.
When it was time for class to begin, a respectful hush fell across the room. We all knew we were in the presence of greatness. A living legend.
Mel stepped forward and spoke words that I will never forget:
“Children!” he said, with his deep voice, sounding like an emperor. “Stand up…now throw yourself onto the floor!”
We all blinked at each other, confused. Ballet classes don’t usually begin by hurling yourself onto the floor.
“Everyone is afraid to fall down,” Mel continued. “But the furthest you can fall is the floor. The floor is not far away. It’s right there. The floor will catch you. And if you ask me, it’s actually pretty comfortable down there.”
Again, he urged us to throw ourselves onto the floor—and we did. Fifty ballet students flopping and thrashing and diving into the ground. And he was right—it wasn’t so terrible down there.
When we face our greatest fear—whether it’s falling onstage, cracking on a high note, being rejected by a college, by a casting director, by a crush—yes, it stings for a moment, but it’s not life-ending. The floor is okay. The floor is survivable. The real lesson is in how you choose to get back up.
Mel passed away on February 5, 2019, just a 3 months ago. My heart has ached to lose one of my heroes. He lived a full, vibrant life. He opened doors for performers like me—and he will always be missed.
In honor of Mel, I invite you to throw yourself onto the floor today. Whatever you fear most, hurl yourself right towards it. Audition for a role that feels a little out of your reach. Apply for a grant. Enroll in a challenging class. Learn a song in a completely different genre or key than you normally do. Try something new. What is the worst that could happen? Even if you fall…the furthest you will fall is the floor.
In loving memory of Mel Alexander Tomlinson.
(January 3, 1954 – February 5, 2019)
The week that he transitioned, we were on our National Tour in Denver. I asked the students to fall on the floor at the beginning of class. The students chuckled. I teared up. Mel smiled.
Founder // The Broadway Collective
Founder of The Broadway Collective and an Honors Graduate of the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Department. Hartwell has been seen on Broadway in Hello, Dolly! w/ Bette Midler, Cinderella, Motown, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Memphis, and Dreamgirls. He’s also a Fred Astaire Award Nominee for ‘Best Male Dancer in a Broadway Show’ and member of Broadway Inspirational Voices.