In honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Dance Theater of Harlem tells its audience to ‘keep movin’’ Dancer Carmen de Lavallade and civil rights activist Xernona Clayton were feted at the company’s season-opening performance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, 50 years ago reverberated through society, bursting through in riots across the nation but also in less obvious decisions. It was King’s death on April 4, 1968, for instance, that prompted Arthur Mitchell to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Mitchell was on his way to Brazil to start the National Ballet Company of Brazil. But in the wake of King’s death, he decided to return to Harlem, New York, the following year and founded a dance company and school in the basement of Harlem’s Church of the Master.

Wednesday night, 50 years after the death that ultimately led to its founding, Dance Theater of Harlem opened its performance season at New York City Center with a celebration of King’s legacy. It did so by honoring one of his most trusted deputies, Xernona Clayton, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade, who brought a magic to the stage that exalted in the joys of blackness.

Last month, the company had announced its new season with a video starring its students that connected the movement of dance with The Movement.

Wednesday night, the students recreated the performance on stage, accompanied by Tony Award-winning singer and actress Lillias White singing “Keep Movin’.” They even added a quick Wakanda salute to the choreography.

The program connects social movements with bodily movement, and so the company honored Clayton with a performance called Change, introduced by Michelle Miller, a correspondent for CBS who called Clayton her “fairy godmother.” Besides her work on civil rights, Clayton became the first black person to host a talk show in the South in 1967 and later went on to become an executive at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Besides heading King’s advance team, Clayton was a close friend of the King family. She’s featured in the new documentary King in the Wilderness, where she revealed how she used her own makeup compact to hide the clay filling King’s face as he lay in his coffin after Coretta Scott King expressed horror at the job done by King’s undertaker.

In a nod to the oft-unseen women, like Clayton, of the civil rights movement, Change featured three women dancing to the vocals of the Spelman Glee Club. At one point, the onstage lights dimmed and the atmosphere grew ominous. The voices of the Glee Club rang out — Don’t let nobody turn you ’round — and the dancers emerged, arms interlocked, determined to power through whatever followed.

Clayton addressed the movement’s gender gap in a phone interview Wednesday morning.

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then,” Clayton said. “We get some of it now, of course. With a lot of effort it brought us to this point now where we’re doing better. We’re not really there yet, so I don’t want anybody to think that we think we have arrived when it comes to maximum inclusion. You certainly knew at that time that women had a role to play, and it was the distant background role, but everybody was doing it.”

“I resent the fact when people said Dr. King was a chauvinist. I said, ‘Everybody was!’ Men didn’t give us women the same regards that we deserved then.”

Civil rights leader Xernona Clayton in Atlanta, June 12, 2017.

Marcus Ingram/Getty Images for Hyatt

If Change was a recognition of struggle, the evening ended in full-on celebration with a performance of choreographer Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, recreated under the supervision of Leo Holder, the son of Geoffrey and de Lavallade.

Judith Jamison, the artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a mentee of de Lavallade’s, introduced the performance. “It’s a work that proves that being a black ballet dancer does not mean leaving your culture behind,” she said.

Dougla is also a reminder that there is more to blackness than pain, grief and triumph over trauma. It’s a dance that tells the story of a wedding ceremony between African and Hindu. De Lavallade beamed as she watched from the audience, clapping her hands, which were encased in gloves covered in silver sequins.

“For me, this means don’t stop,” de Lavallade said after the performance. “Just keep going. You can contemplate, but you have to move forward in contemplation. There’s so much going on. You can’t let outside influences get to you, and that’s what’s happened. You can’t do that. You have to keep your eye on the prize — isn’t that what [King] said?”

Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”