Ellington, Mercedes 1939–
Mercedes Ellington 1939–
Dancer, choreographer, educator
Mercedes Ellington, modern-day dance pioneer, gained international attention in 1963 as the first black member of the June Taylor Dancers, a trend-setting accomplishment in the entertainment industry. She has been a dancer and choreographer in Broadway productions and was featured dancer and choreographer of the hit show Sophisticated Ladies. As dancer, choreographer, and teacher, she has contributed significantly to artistry in the entertainment world.
The United States has had few notable three-generation families in the performing arts. The Ellington family is one of them. Mercedes Ellington is the daughter of Mercer Ellington, well-known musician, arranger, and band leader. Mercer Ellington’s father was the peerless orchestra leader, pianist, and composer Edward Kennedy Ellington, best known as “Duke” Ellington.
Mercedes Ellington was born in 1939 to Ruth V. Silas Ellington and Mercer Ellington, who were divorced within a year of her birth. Ellington inherited her artistic talents from both sides of her family. She recalled how her mother, as a teenager, organized a club of her peers devoted to exhibition ballroom dancing for local social events. After her divorce, Ruth Silas married James A. Batts, a prominent Philadelphia obstetrician and gynecologist; Ruth Batts still resides in Philadelphia. Ellington, the only child of her parents’ marriage, has several half-brothers and sisters from their subsequent remarriages.
Ellington was reared by her maternal grandparents, Louise and Alfred Silas, in Harlem on Convent Avenue. Ellington entered nursery school when she was eighteen months old and began dance lessons shortly thereafter to correct a circulatory problem. In no time she was performing in dancing and singing recitals. Raised as a Catholic, Ellington attended Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school in the Convent Avenue area. Her grandmother enrolled her in the school’s Tuesday ballet class taught by a Polish teacher who also had a Saturday class. Despite Louise Silas’s efforts to enroll her granddaughter in that class also, the young girl could not enter due to a supposed long waiting list. Ellington later found out that her grandmother battled the Catholic school authorities because the real reason was racial prejudice. To appease her grandmother, Ellington was given a featured role in the school’s Saint Patrick’s Day program. Ellington always respected and admired her grandmother for her efforts to shield her from prejudicial mistreatment so that she would never feel inferior due to her race. Ellington was also a ballet student of black twin sisters Marian and Marjorie Facey, who were ballerinas trained by a partner of Pavlova. They operated their own school at Carnegie Hall in a rented studio. Ellington continued dance studies at Saint Walburga’s Academy and won a prestigious scholarship to the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet, now defunct. After graduating she enrolled at Juilliard and graduated in 1960 with a degree in classical and modern dance.
In 1963 the Jackie Gleason Show was one of the most watched shows on televison, drawing millions of viewers during it Saturday night broadcast. Although Gleason was the star of the show, a major highlight was the
Born in 1939; daughter of Ruth V. Silas Ellington and Mercer Ellington; Education: Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet; Juilliard, degree in classical and modern dance, 1960.
Career: Dancer, choreographer, educator. Made history with June Taylor Dancers, as first African-American in troupe on Jackie Gleason Show; danced and choreographed many Broadway productions; Sophisticated Ladies, featured dancer and assistant choreographer; Balletap USA, artistic co-director, later renamed DancEllington; Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, jazz tap teacher.
Member: Actor’s Equity Council, Actors’ Equity Association; Capezio Dance Awards; American Guild of Musical Artists; Screen Actors’ Guild; Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, bd member.
Address: 3900 Ford Road, Philadelphia, PA 19131.
June Taylor Dancers, a precision dance troupe as familiar to Americans as the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. That year, television history was made when Mercedes Ellington appeared as the first black dancer in the June Taylor Dancers. The NAACP and the Urban League had long waged a campaign to force the entertainment industry to hire qualified blacks. A major strategy employed by these organizations was to send carefully screened entertainers to audition for posted openings. Ellington was sent to Radio City Music Hall to audition for the ballet corps before the Gleason show audition. After her successful audition, she rushed to call her mother with the good news, but Ruth Batts, in Philadelphia, had already been contacted by reporters. The event was even covered by the European and Japanese press. Ironically, the CBS network was the last to know that it had made television history. Ellington was a June Taylor dancer for seven years, a position that was not only a professional boon but a financial one as well, due to long-term residual payments.
With all of her education and training, Ellington has gained a sterling reputation in the field of modern dance as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher. As a dancer and assistant choreographer, she appeared in such Broadway productions as No, No Nanette; Hellzapoppin’; Oh, Kay; Happy New Year; The Grand Tour; and The Night That Made America Famous. In 1981 Ellington made dance history again as a featured dancer and assistant choreographer in the Broadway hit Sophisticated Ladies. Not only was this production based on the music of Duke Ellington, but the musical director was Mercer Ellington. When the show opened in Washington, D.C., the reviews were unfavorable and critics predicted that it would never reach Broadway.
Ellington fought to get a featured role in the Broadway show, which was the original idea of Manny Fox. When asked for suggestions for a Broadway director, Fox recommended the show’s original director, who brought in his own assistant choreographer and asked Ellington to become dance captain, a position Ellington did not at all desire. This job entailed conducting rehearsals for understudies, hiring new dancers, demonstrating dance routines, and memorizing the entire show book. As a production/staff person, the dance captain does not dance. Hired originally as an ensemble dancer, Ellington became Judith Jamison’s understudy and when Jamison, as the featured star, exercised her right not to do less preferred dances, Ellington stepped in and performed them. She was also an asset when much-needed revisions were made that resulted in deleting the libretto, the weakest part, and emphasizing the strong points, namely, the music and dances. Many of Ellington’s suggestions were implemented, including the precision-kick line ups featured in two numbers, “Caravan” and the first act finale, “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” These were later videotaped to specify her unique contributions to the show. Sophisticated Ladies, predicted to be a flop, was a Broadway hit for nearly two years with a 767-performance run; afterwards, it became a pay-per-view television production.
In the decade since Sophisticated Ladies, Ellington has used her array of professional skills to further and broaden her career. From 1983 to 1985, she and Maurice Hines were artistic codirectors of Balletap USA. When Hines left, she changed it to DancEllington, a tap dance company. Because grants needed to support such enterprises are difficult to secure, the company is now being dissolved. These two companies provided a transition for Ellington from performing to working as a choreographer, director, and teacher. Ellington has spent the years from 1990 to 1993 working exclusively as a choreographer, most recently in Birmingham, Alabama, with Tuxedo Junction; she also went to Saint Louis in July 1993 to do Peter Pan. In addition, she has used her talents and skills in Blues in the Night (1984, 1985) and Juba (1985, 1986) and was jazz tap teacher at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Ellington’s professional affiliations include Actor’s Equity Council of the Actors’ Equity Association, Capezio Dance Awards, American Guild of Musical Artists, Screen Actors’ Guild, and Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; she has served on local and national boards of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Ellington is a modern-day dance pioneer who earned every position on her own merits. In reminiscing about her grandfather, the “Duke,” she told People magazine: “In show business, you find a lot of family members who are financially dependent on someone like him, but I wasn’t. So he found it comfortable talking to me; he knew I wasn’t thinking what can he do for me or what can I get from him.” In another indication of her struggles to be taken seriously on her own merits, she told Ebony magazine: “Being related to a famous person has definitely been a hindrance in my case … people take it for granted that you had an easy life and often lean over backwards to make things more difficult for you.”
Always the consummate professional, Mercedes Ellington has shown the world that she is an accomplished performer and artist in her own right who, while appreciating her family and her musical heritage, has been able to rely on her own skills, talents, and gifts. She continued to create, choreograph, direct, and teach for various events and plays into the twenty-first century. Once described as a “lithe, hollow-cheeked sophisticated lady with a pro form,” Ellington is also a gracious, warm, and well-spoken person. As further expression of her athletic and artistic nature, she enjoys photography, ice skating, knitting, and sewing. She also likes model trains, working crossword puzzles, and playing chess.
Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.
Ellington, Duke. Music Is My Mistress, Doubleday and Co., 1973.
Frankl, Ron. Duke Ellington, Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Jewell, Derek. Duice; A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Norton, 1977.
Who’s Who among Black Americans, 1992-1993, 8th ed. Gale Research Inc., 1992.
Who’s Who in Entertainment, 2nd ed. Marquis Who’s Who, 1992.
Woll, Allen. Black Musical Theater—From Coontown to Dreamgirls, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Ebony, December 1963, pp. 67-73.
New York Times, March 3, 1981.
People, December 14, 1981, pp. 147-48.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview conducted by Dolores Nicholson, June 27, 1993 and October 25, 1993.
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