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Tomlinson, Mel A.

by Jeff Miles, North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, 2015;
contributions by Kelly Agan, N.C. Government & Heritage Library, 2016; 
Revised by NC Government & Heritage Library, June 2022. 
Originally published November 27, 2015 in This Day in North Carolina History. Reprinted with permission.

January 3, 1954 – February 5, 2019

See also: Mel A. Tomlinson: Rubber-Band Man, from "Listening to History."

Born in Raleigh on January 3 1954, Tomlinson became interested in dance after participating in gymnastics in high school. He grew up in the public housing projects of Chavis Heights in Raleigh, one of six children, and attended Ligon High School in the 1960s. The school was segregated during that era.

He received a B.F.A. from what is 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 joined the New York City Ballet in 1981 and was at the time its only African American dancer. He became a soloist with the Ballet shortly thereafter. His November 27, 1981 debut in Balanchine's "Agon" earned him immediate notice by the audience and critics. A write-up in the New York Times a few days later called the performance "electrifying." Tomlinson stayed with the Ballet until 1987.  

In 1983, he received the first annual North Carolina Prize, given to an artist in the field of visual or performing arts from a group of four North Carolina newspapers owned by the New York Times Company.

In 1987 he returned to his home state of North Carolina and joined the faculty at the UNCSA. After leaving UNCSA, Tomlinson continued to teach and perform with institutions including the Boston Ballet’s CITYDANCE program, Boston Conservatory of Music, Harvard University, UNC-Charlotte and what is now the Charlotte Ballet. 

By the mid-1990s, Tomlinson was diagnosed with HIV and had developed AIDS. He was gravely ill and hospitalized, but made a dramatic recovery. He continued to teach dance, lecture, and appear as a motivational speaker. 

Mel Tomlinson died at the age of 65 on February 5, 2019 of pancreatic cancer. 

Additional Resources:

Stuart, Otis. "Black and White in Color." Ballet International, November 1983.

"Mel Tomlinson." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. 5 vols. Macmillan: 1996. 

Kisselgoff, Anna. "City Ballet: Tomlinson Makes Debut in 'Agon'." New York Times, November 29, 1981. (accessed May 11, 2016).

"Mel Tomlinson Wins Carolina Prize."  New York Times, September 7, 1983. May 11, 2016).

Brown, Tony. "Late Afternoon of a faun." Pittsburg Post-Gazette, January 11, 1996. May 11, 2016).

Rutledge, Stephen. "#BlackHistoryMonth: Remembering Dancer, Mel Tomlinson". February 2, 2022. March 3, 2022).