The dancer

As a child, An inspiring dance teacher changed her life. Now Lavern Porter-Mitchell passes it on


LaVern Porter Dancers pose in their dance studio Tuesday afternoon with their instructor, right, LaVern Porter-Mitchell.

Tricia Coyne/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 8:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 at 8:56 p.m.

LaVern Porter-Mitchell

Age: 59

Personal: Divorced.

Occupation: Liaison specialist for the Head Start program with the Alachua County School Board

Director of the LaVern Porter Dancers

As a child growing up in Gainesville in the 1960s, LaVern Porter-Mitchell, 59, could only look through the window of a downtown dance studio. Segregation made it impossible for her to take classes there.

"I mimicked what I saw those dancers do and others I saw on television," Porter-Mitchell recalls.

Over the years children and adults alike have followed Porter-Mitchell's steps as she's taught dance throughout the community. She herself retired from performing in 1988, but that does not mean the invitations to dance have stopped. Her group has travelled throughout the region and state performing at various events, often free of charge.

Teaching for Porter-Mitchell is rewarding, although often not in the monetary sense.

"I went to low income areas to find students. My focus was to give those who would not otherwise have the chance to take dance," she says. "It's about giving children the opportunity to be exposed to the arts no matter where they come from."

She teaches many students at no charge, and when they can't afford it, she often covers the cost of their costumes for performances.

It's a way of giving back, inspired, perhaps, by the woman who opened the doors of dance to her so many years ago. It was not until volunteer Mary Webb started a dance group in the early 1960s at an east Gainesville recreation center, now known as the Rosa B. Williams Center, that the then 10-year-old Porter-Mitchell was able to make her dream a reality.

Webb, a social worker with limited dance training, worked with the group of girls for several years, exposing them to professional dance productions.

"That was important...she (Webb) was a white woman. And when she started that group, it opened up a whole new world for me," Porter-Mitchell says.

Webb took the small dance group to see a local performance of legendary dancer Katherine Dunham, who is often described as the pioneer of black dance. In 1967 Dunham invited several of the girls, including high school senior Porter-Mitchell, to travel to the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Illinois, south of Chicago to study.

Porter-Mitchell had no other formal dance training outside of what she taught herself or learned from Webb and Dunham.

She says she was profoundly changed by the month-long experience at Dunham's studio and returned to Gainesville even more impassioned about dance.

"I learned about proper attire, discipline and form," she says. "It was amazing and I was driven because it was not offered to me here because of segregation."

The desire to join Dunham's dance company was strong for Porter-Mitchell. However she chose to follow Dunham's lead by returning to Gainesville and teaching dance to students who looked like her. The civil rights struggle and plight of the inner city was the catalyst for Dunham to open the performing arts center in East St. Louis.

"I did not want other young people to go through what I did," Porter-Mitchell says. "Even today I think cost keeps some from taking dance while for others they are cautious about the unknown...how they will be accepted."

She counts the number of students she has taught over the years in the thousands. Many of today's students are the grandchildren of members of her early dance troupes.

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