As a child, Norma B. Mitchell attended dance classes at the Phyllis Wheatley YMCA. Her instructor was a gentleman from Russia who taught Black youth the art of dance. Mitchell continued to perfect her dance technique even as she worked for Atlanta Public Schools and as a biology professor at Morris Brown College.
In 1972, Norma’s Academy of Fine Arts was founded. Youth in Atlanta could enroll to learn the art of dance, ice skating, baton twirling, theater, and music appreciation (instrument instruction and vocal lessons). In 1985, Norma B. Mitchell suffered a massive heart attack; her daughter, Djana Bell, was faced with a difficult decision at only 20 years old. Watching her mother’s successful journey into dance instruction and desiring to continue her mother’s legacy, Bell became the artistic director in 1985.
An advocate of true technical training because she believes that dance is an art where technique is extremely important, Bell likens her approach to dance to that of Debbie Allen’s. Instead of falling prey to the everchanging nature of the dance industry, she has continued to adhere to her brand of instilling discipline and the true meaning of technique. Students of Norma’s Academy of Dance are often well-prepared to earn collegiate scholarships and are more marketable for job opportunities in professional dance companies, television and film, and Broadway productions due to the discipline and attention to technique learned while attending the academy.
Norma’s Academy of Dance, currently the longest continuously operating Black-owned dance studio in Atlanta, offers classes in ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, modern, contemporary, and pointe. The academy continues to serve as a haven for youth in the community
Dance and the desire to ensure that youth have access to a safe learning space runs in the family. Bell’s eldest daughter, Elyse, holds an MA in Arts Management from George Mason University and a minor in dance from the University of Georgia. Her youngest daughter, Erin, works as the office manager and instructor/choreographer at the academy, and she will graduate from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia in spring 2022
Not only will the legacy continue, but it will expand. Many alumni have opened their own dance studios, often leaning on Bell for guidance, advice, or mentorship. Other alumni have returned to instruct the current students, while others have enrolled their young children in the academy with its proven track record. The newly formed nonprofit organization, The Norma B. Mitchell Legacy, will increase the number of scholarships available to students in the community who would like to enroll in dance classes.
Although the pandemic forced the cancellation of the in-person “Legacy of Love” event, a showcase of various performing artists and celebration of women living with the challenges of heart disease, dance instructors and students created a video presentation that could be enjoyed virtually. With restrictions now easing, an opportunity to attend Norma’s Academy of Dance’s 50th Anniversary concert in person takes place Saturday, June 18,, at Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech.
Ticket sales begin on Saturday, May 21. For ticket information, visit NADance.com.