November 2018

Mel Tomlinson, Ph.D.

Mel Tomlinson, Ph.D.

For the youngster who became one of the country’s first African-American ballet stars, it wasn’t about dancing. Mel Tomlinson just liked attention.

Born in 1954, Tomlinson grew up in the Chavis Heights neighborhood of Raleigh, one of seven children. A self-described “nerd” who loved getting an “A” on an assignment, he had a talent for gymnastics and a stretching ability which won him the nickname Rubber Band Man and stints as the mascot for Carnage Junior High and, later, for Ligon High School.

Then destiny intervened in the form of a letter from a local ballet instructor, Betty Kovach, who had seen his halftime unicycle performance and sideline energy.

“She wrote ‘I’d like to talk to you about dancing and your future’,” Tomlinson recalled. “Mrs. Kovach’s studio is on the other side of town, where the golf courses are, and I’m there in the projects. So I took the bus and went across town. I was thinking: ‘Boys don’t do this’.”

He quickly found that boys could and did dance.

“I loved dancing,” he said. “I loved pleasing the audience. I loved the escape of it because I could be anything I wanted.”

Tomlinson thrived under Kovach’s quiet, exacting teaching and in 1971, at age 17, was accepted into the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He excelled in the dance program, finishing his bachelor’s degree in just two years.

Prior to graduation, Tomlinson auditioned for a place in the prestigious dance company led by Agnes DeMille, niece to filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. He was heartbroken but undaunted when he was not selected because DeMille felt there was no place for an African American dancer in the company.

He convinced DeMille to give him another chance and pulled out some of his old mascot routines.  DeMille relented, accepted him into her company and later named him the principal dancer.

In 1974, Tomlinson moved to New York City to join the Dance Theater of Harlem. With his amazing physique and natural talent for movement, he became a soloist. He also toured with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“Dynamic and electric” soon became the most common words to describe Tomlinson’s performance.  In 1981, he joined the New York City Ballet, becoming its only African-American member. Again, he soon rose to soloist, and the New York Times showered him with accolades for his performance in George Balanchine’s Agon.

In 1983, he received the first North Carolina Prize, given to an artist in the field of visual or performing arts.


Six years later, he returned to his alma mater as a faculty member at the School of the Arts. Leaving in 1996, he continued to teach and perform with a variety of organizations, including the Boston Ballet’s CITYDANCE program, the Boston Conservatory of Music, and what is now the Charlotte Ballet.

Diagnosed as HIV-positive in the early 1990s, Tomlinson decided to return to North Carolina when he was in the final stages of AIDS. When he was admitted to House of Mercy, a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy order of Catholic nuns in Belmont, in 1998, Tomlinson did not expect to live more than six months. But, astonishingly, he began a slow recovery. Eventually, he said, the virus was no longer detectable in his bloodstream.

“I got so close to death, not only did I see the light, but I saw the light fixture,” Tomlinson said. “Anything like that is life-altering.”

Adamant that God saved his life and inspired by the experiences, Tomlinson returned to school with a new mission: to make a difference for others. He earned Master’s and Doctoral degrees from the Carolina University of Theology in Stanley.

Today, Tomlinson lives in Charlotte but travels often as a motivational speaker and teacher.

While dance was once a way to draw attention to himself, Tomlinson now sees it as the best way for him to demonstrate his faith.

“It is my desire that some day we shall want for nothing and need for not,” he said.


By April Carroll