Tomlinson in a studio portrait in costume for “The Four Temperaments.” Image from the New York City Public Library.

Mel Tomlinson, Master of Ballet and Modern Dance

On November 27, 1981, Mel Tomlinson made his debut as the only African American member of the New York City Ballet.

Born in Raleigh in January 1954, Tomlinson became interested in dance after participating in gymnastics in high school. He received a B.F.A. from what’s now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) after studying there for only two years. After graduation, Thomlinson began touring the country with the Agnes de Mille Heritage Theatre, which was founded at the school.

In 1974, Tomlinson switched his focus from modern dance to ballet and joined the Dance Theater of Harlem, where he quickly rose to the position of soloist, where he performed in “Manifestations,” “Swan Lake” and “Scheherazade.” He took leave for a time to join Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater, which produced mostly modern pieces.

Tomlinson became a soloist with the New York City Ballet shortly after joining the company, and he remained there until 1987, when he returned to his home state and joined the faculty at UNCSA.

Since leaving UNCSA, Tomlinson has taught at or performed with the Boston Ballet’s CITYDANCE program, Boston Conservatory of Music, Harvard University, UNC-Charlotte and what’s now the Charlotte Ballet.

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