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Mel Alexander Tomlinson (January 3, 1954 – February 5, 2019) was an American dancer and choreographer. At the time of his debut with the New York City Ballet in 1981, he was the only African-American dancer in the company.[2][3] Ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille referred to Tomlinson as "the most exciting black dancer in America."[4]

Mel Tomlinson
Mel Alexander Tomlinson

(1954-01-03)January 3, 1954
DiedFebruary 5, 2019(2019-02-05) (aged 65)
EducationJohn W. Ligon Senior High School
North Carolina School of the Arts
OccupationBallet dancer, modern dancer, minister
Home townRaleigh, North Carolina
Former groupsAgnes de Mille Dance Theatre
Dance Theatre of Harlem
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
New York City Ballet
North Carolina Dance Theatre
Boston Ballet


Early lifeEdit

Tomlinson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and grew up in the Chavis Heights public housing neighborhood in Southeast Raleigh. He began dancing while a student at Fred J. Carnage Junior High School, taking lessons from Betty Kovach.[5] In the 1960s he attended the segregated John W. Ligon Senior High School, where he studied dance and gymnastics.[6] He went on to earn a B.F.A. in dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts.[2]


Tomlinson began his professional dance career as a principal dancer with Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theater, which was founded at the North Carolina School of the Arts. In 1974 Tomlinson moved to New York City to join Dance Theatre of Harlem, choosing the company after also receiving invitations from Joffrey Ballet and Boston Ballet.[7] He was promoted to soloist with Dance Theatre of Harlem, performing in Manifestations, Swan Lake, and Scheherazade. He later took leave from Dance Theatre of Harlem to join Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; dancing in Pas de Duke and The Time Before the Time After. Tomlinson joined the New York City Ballet[8][9] in 1981; at the time the only African-American dancer at the company.[2] He made his debut at New York City Ballet on November 27, 1981 in George Balanchine's Agon, dancing with Heather Watts.[10]

In 1983, Tomlinson received the first annual North Carolina Prize for outstanding work in the visual or performing arts.[11] In 1987 Tomlinson retired from New York City Ballet, having reached the rank of soloist, and moved back to North Carolina to join the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He came out of retirement to dance as a principal dancer for the North Carolina Dance Theatre under the direction of Salvatore Aiello. In 1991 he left North Carolina Dance Theatre and joined Boston Ballet as a principal dancer and master teacher in the CITYDANCE program, dancing with the company until 1994.[12][13] Tomlinson also taught at Boston Conservatory of Music, Harvard University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the School at Greensboro Ballet, and Charlotte Ballet.[14]

Personal lifeEdit

Tomlinson was openly gay.[15] He was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s and developed AIDS.[16] On December 8, 1998 Tomlinson was admitted into the House of Mercy, a ministry of the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in Belmont, North Carolina that assists people in the final stages of AIDS. Shirley Stowe, director of nursing at the House of Mercy, expected Tomlinson to die within six months after being admitted. He made a slow recovery and was eventually released from the house on September 10, 2000.[17]

Tomlinson received a Ph.D. from Carolina University of Theology and was ordained as a Baptist minister.[5]

Tomlinson later lived in Charlotte, North Carolina[8] and was a dance teacher and director of The Hallelujah Dance Corps at St. Paul Baptist Church.[17] He died on February 5, 2019 at the age of 65.[1][18]


  1. ^ a b Kourlas, Gia (February 13, 2019). "Mel A. Tomlinson, 65, Ballet Star and 'Agon' Interpreter, Dies". Archived from the original on 2019-02-15. Retrieved February 15, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c "Mel Tomlinson, Master of Ballet and Modern Dance - NC DNCR".
  3. ^ "Great Performances: Free To Dance - Biographies - Mel Tomlinson". Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  4. ^ "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 11, 1996 · Page 36". Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  5. ^ a b "Tomlinson, Mel A.: Rubber-Band Man - NCpedia".
  6. ^ "Ballet dancer Mel Tomlinson returns to Raleigh to teach students".
  7. ^ Luis Dominguez (16 May 2014). "Interview with Dr Mel Tomlinson" – via YouTube.
  8. ^ a b "An Exclusive Tour with Dr. Mel A. Tomlinson - Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts". The Gantt Center.
  9. ^ Desk, BWW News. "Mel A.Tomlinson Joins Dance Legend's Ruth Page Tribute at St Luke's Theater, 3/23".
  10. ^ "CITY BALLET: TOMLINSON MAKES DEBUT IN 'AGON'". The New York Times. 29 November 1981.
  11. ^ "MEL TOMMLINSON WINS CAROLINA PRIZE". The New York Times. 1983-09-07. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  12. ^ "Mountain Xpress | Asheville and Western North Carolina News | Local Matters – Arts, Food, Music and Movies". Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  13. ^ "Mel Tomlinson". The Academy. Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  14. ^ "Tomlinson, Mel A. - NCpedia".
  15. ^ "GRACEFUL SOUL RISING |". Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  16. ^ "Successful dancer from Raleigh returns to teach students".
  17. ^ a b "2 Jesus Testimonies". Retrieved 2017-10-26.
  18. ^ Drabble, Jenny (February 8, 2019). "Pioneering ballet star with Winston-Salem, UNCSA ties, dies at age 65". Winston-Salem Journal. Retrieved February 8, 2019.