Remarks by the First Lady at Black History Month Dance Performance
4:14 P.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Well, look at everyone here! (Laughter.) Fancy meeting you all here! We’ve got a little bit of everybody. Surprise! (Laughter.) Well, hello, everyone.
MRS. OBAMA: What are you guys doing over there? You still having fun?
MRS. OBAMA: That’s good. Well, I am thrilled that all of you are here today to help us celebrate Black History Month at the White House. (Applause.)
Let me start by thanking a few people. I want to thank the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans for making this event possible. Let’s give them a round of applause. (Applause.) I want to thank La La Anthony who was here earlier today. She moderated our panel. (Applause.) La La is amazing, isn’t she? She gave you all some words of wisdom that were -- I hope you all were listening.
I also want to recognize the dance icons who are gracing us with their presence today: Debbie Allen, Virginia Johnson, Fatima Robinson, and Judith Jamison. (Applause.) We are all honored -- honored -- to have you here at the White House. This has just been an amazing day. And you all have been working your tails off. Debbie was like, “my back!” (Laughter.) So you all are amazing. Thank you for this. We could not have done it without you and your tremendous teams. So thank you. And to the teams who were here, you guys did it today. Did it. Thank you all. (Applause.)
But most of all, I want to give a very special shout-out to the 51 remarkable young performers who I had the pleasure of getting to know earlier today. We had some fun. They asked some great questions. They are amazing. These are girls from right here in Washington, D.C., and they spent the morning studying with these living legends of dance. And in just a few minutes they’re going to perform for us all. (Applause.) And if I’m right, they’re performing -- they just learned everything today. So this is like -- so, you all, don’t be nervous. You all have been here. This is fun stuff. But I peaked in after our panel; I saw some of you all. Who did I see? Which group was that that I saw -- you guys in the back. I peaked in. They’re ready. They are ready. So we’re excited to have them. (Applause.)
Today is a very special day at the White House, and it’s pretty special for me personally because I absolutely love dance. Absolutely love it. I think it’s probably my favorite art form. In fact, for years, Judith’s picture from “Cry” was the only piece of art that Barack and I had in our first condominium. We thought we were doing something. We had Judith on the wall. (Laughter.) Thank you. And after Barack’s inauguration, our family’s first trip to the Kennedy Center was for the -- Alvin Ailey’s 50th anniversary performance. And we try to get there almost every year -- we missed this year, we missed last year -- but we are regulars at Alvin Ailey.
And while I’m certainly not a professional, I took dance lessons, I told you guys, when I was sort of like in middle school. But, as you know, I never pass up the opportunity to, you know, show some moves every now and then. (Laughter.) So to actually host all these extraordinary dancers today, this is really a dream come true for me.
But today isn’t just a special day for me, it’s really a special day for our entire country. Because for nearly 50 years, the women who are gracing us here today have been driving a force in the -- they’ve been a driving force in the cultural life of this nation. From tribal rhythms to freedom songs, from modern dance to hip hop, their work has stirred our souls and ignited our imagination. Through dance, they have told the stories of who we were, who we are, and who we can be.
And during Black History Month, that’s really what we celebrate -- we celebrate the people who have shaped our heritage. We remember those who struggled for our rights and our freedoms, and we reflect on how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go. And when it comes to the world of dance, we have come such a very long way. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that many major ballet companies wouldn’t hire black dancers. We talked about that today. And the few dancers who were hired were sometimes asked to wear white pancake makeup to hide their face from the audience.
Some of the women on -- who are with us today felt the sting of that discrimination firsthand. Debbie Allen shared with us that she was turned away from the Houston Ballet Foundation because she was black. Virginia Johnson’s teacher told her that a black woman would never find a job in ballet. And when Judith Jamison first came to dance with Alvin Ailey, they were so strapped for cash that Alvin Ailey could sometimes only afford to pay his dancers with Thank You cards.
But these women didn’t let any of this discourage them or knock them off their path. Debbie just kept on auditioning until the Houston Ballet Foundation accepted her as its first black student. Virginia didn’t just get a job for herself in ballet -- she helped form the Dance Theater of Harlem and launched the careers of countless black dancers. (Applause.)
And as for Judith, well, she decided that the thank you cards would have to do, but she also helped build Alvin Ailey into the powerhouse it is today, because, as she put it –- and this is what she shared with these girls today -- she said, “If the door isn’t open, you have to make your own door.”
And because of the doors that these women have made, because of the examples they set, today, a black woman named Misty Copeland is a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater. (Applause.) A phenomenal black woman named Fatima Robinson who choreographed a Michael Jackson video at the age of 21 is now directing the biggest artists in the music industry. (Applause.) And today, just two generations later, 51 beautiful black girls are at the White House, and they’ll be dancing right here in front of George and Martha. (Laughter and applause.)
So as we said this morning, you all are the living legacy of these remarkable women. We said that. Your presence here today is very much the result of the risks they took, because of the sacrifices they made, and the grinding hard work they put in hour after hour, year after year, rehearsing until their bodies ached and their lungs burned, and they never wanted to put on that leotard again. That was the only way to succeed, especially in a world where the odds were stacked against them.
And more than anything else, that’s really my message to all of the young people here and all the young people watching that you all need to show that same kind of education and discipline. We talked about this today -- not just in dancing, but in every part of your life, especially when it comes to school and getting your education. Because no matter what you do with your lives -– whether it’s dance or anything that you do with a passion -- you're going to have to be at your very best. And education -- that foundation. And it’s going to take practice and hard work. That means that you’ve got to do everything again and again.
So you’ve got an essay to write -- draft after draft, you're going to have to write and edit. Got to work on that. It means math problems, you have to do them over and over again until you get every single one of them right. It means doing your very best and being your very best every single day. Like La La said, being a good person, not being late, showing up on time and being prepared.
Because ultimately, that’s how we break down barriers. That's how we move this country forward -– we fight for the opportunity to succeed. And we prepare ourselves to seize the opportunity and shine when that moment comes –- whether that’s on stage, in the courtroom, the boardroom; whether it’s on the play field, the battleground -- wherever it is you guys want to go, to get there, you have to be prepared and you have to be at your best.
And make no mistake about it -- that work is far from over. Because that struggle for equality and opportunity didn’t end with these women here. Anyone who turns on the news today knows that we still have a long way to go. But standing here today in this room with all these amazing legends and all these wonderful women, so many of them are powerful in their own right. Looking out at these beautiful, talented young women, I know that we have the power to keep reaching higher and defying the odds, and achieving those firsts, and seconds, and thirds, and hundreds, and thousands until a black principal dancer is no longer a cause for headlines. And our children are limited only by the size of their dreams and their willingness to work for them.
And this Black History Month, I am so proud to celebrate those who inspire us along this journey, those who paved the paths in which we still walk and who set the standards to which we aspire. To these girls here, the legacy -- that legacy is truly your greatest inheritance. It really is. And it’s not just in these women -- it’s in all the role models that we talked about that you have to cultivate over the course of your life. We are with you all. We are proud of you. We are excited to see you take your place not just on this stage, but in the course of making change in this country. You all are our next generation. We talked about that, too.
So I don’t want you all to be nervous. You’re home. This stage is like your home. This house is yours. So have fun, you know? Have fun. (Applause.) It’s going to be good. (Laughter.) We’re proud of you. Everybody here is proud of you, right?
AUDIENCE: Yes! (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: And we’ve got your backs. (Applause.)
And with that, I am going to turn things over to Debbie Allen, who is going to come up and get things started. Yes, you’re next. We’re going to strike the podium and we’re going to get to dancing. All right, you all, thank you so much. (Applause.)
* * * * *
MRS. OBAMA: Wow! I was ready for more! I was all in, like we were in The Wiz! It was going to take us there! Let’s give our dancers a round of applause. (Applause.) Wow! Wow! Wow! (Applause.) We’re applauding for you all, you don’t have to stand up.
Can you believe this was a couple hours’ worth of work? I mean, you all are stars. What did it -- we had conversations this morning -- we had conversations about confidence and role models and education and nutrition. And one of the questions was, what do I say to my daughters to help them build confidence? What kind of conversations -- really good, deep questions, by the way. But what you all just did today, showing up at the White House, learning from dancing legends, and then coming out in front of the media and performing like that? Excuse me, there is absolutely nothing you all cannot do. (Applause.) I mean, come on, ladies! Know that!
This had to be one of the hardest things you were asked to do, and you all threw it down, every last one of you. I am so proud of you. I could be crying right now, but I’ve got to wrap this up and keep it together. (Laughter.)
You all are amazing. And it has been just an honor and a privilege for all of the team here at the White House to host you all. And to our icons, our legends -- oh, ladies, thank you for this. I told Debbie, I said, can we do this again next week? Can you come back next week? (Laughter and applause.)
And to the entire team, everyone -- all the choreographers and dancers, all the staff who helped bring this together -- thank you, thank you, thank you for dedicating so much time to these young ladies. I know that this day will impact their lives forever. And that’s what we’re trying to do. So thank you.
And I also want to acknowledge -- I know we have parents and friends and teachers. Let’s give families a round of applause, you all! (Applause.) Why don’t you all stand up, our parents, our family members. (Applause.) Grandparents, we’ve got a few in here. All right, so I’m going to hook you all up -- so just remember when they act a little rough, remember they got you into the White House. (Laughter.) So maybe a little -- just a little leeway.
We also talked about the role models that these young girls have in the people that surround them -- their family members, their parents and grandparents and siblings, and all the teachers and instructors that are in their lives. You all have done a phenomenal job with these young ladies. They carry themselves today with poise and grace and maturity. They were phenomenal, and you have every reason to be proud. And I know, as a mother, you want to hear that from strangers. (Laughter.) They behaved themselves today. They made you proud.
And to everyone here, thank you. Thank you for supporting these young people. Thank you for supporting the art of dance. Let’s remember these companies are out there. They need our support. They need our attendance. They need our love and encouragement every step of the way. (Applause.)
Happy Black History Month to everyone. (Applause.) Enjoy the month. You all keep studying and working hard. Let’s not just celebrate Black History Month in February, let’s celebrate it every single day of every single year for ever and ever and ever. (Applause.) We have contributed so much to this nation and to this planet. And we have to make sure that our young people understand where they come from and how valuable they are, how valuable that history is, so that they know they have a solid foundation upon which to soar.
And these young people are doing it. There are millions of young people just like them out here, and that’s the beauty of the arts and why we have to support it, why we have to have it in our schools, why we have to make sure that every kid has access to it -- because there are millions of kids just like them with the same kind of talent and energy and potential and drive who do not get to do it because it’s not available, their families can’t afford it. We can’t afford to waste that kind of talent.
So we as a nation have to put our energies and resources into bringing arts into the lives of every kid in every neighborhood regardless of income, race, background, religion, what have you. This is an absolutely necessity. (Applause.)
So let us leave here today all filled with warmness and pride and all that good stuff. It was just a pleasure to host this here at the White House. Yay for us. (Applause.)
You guys, take care. Enjoy. We love you. God bless. (Applause.)
5:04 P.M. EST