Ligon Middle School has been upgraded in the years since Mel Tomlinson roamed the halls as a student in the 1960s, when the building housed the all-black Ligon High School.
But the stage, where he used to perform as a teenager, is still the same.
“This is home,” said Tomlinson, an award-winning dancer who grew up in Raleigh and went on to perform with the New York City Ballet.
Tomlinson has spent the past two weeks teaching dance at Southeast Raleigh’s Ligon Middle School, a magnet school with a gifted-and-talented program. Ligon students have been taking part in the lessons, along with some Enloe High School students who attended Ligon.
“I’m just coming back home to give,” said Tomlinson, 62. “When you go that high, you have to reach back.”
Tomlinson said he was the only boy on the cheerleading squad at Ligon High School, which was converted to a middle school after integration. He was also in drama and liked to do gymnastics.
Now Tomlinson lives in Charlotte and travels to share his story and expertise with dancers around the world. At Ligon, his routines mixed modern dance and ballet.
“It’s very different than what we normally do at Enloe,” said sophomore Sara Dellinger. “I’m very tired by the end of it.”
Tomlinson, who was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s and suffers from medical issues related to the virus, instructed dancers from a chair in the front of the dance studio at Ligon on Thursday. He demonstrated how to move their arms and position their feet.
Seventh-grader Anna Joyce said she was intimidated when she learned about Tomlinson’s accomplishments. It comforted her to know he attended Ligon.
“It’s kind of crazy that he’s teaching us,” she said.
Tomlinson said teaching is his new duty. He has taught at places such as UNC School of the Arts, the Boston Conservatory, Harvard University and UNC-Charlotte. He said he enjoys being able to mentor dancers and see them go on to have successful careers.
It wasn’t easy being a black, male dancer years ago, Tomlinson said. He grew up in a poor family in the Chavis Heights neighborhood of Southeast Raleigh, and he didn’t get the chance to take formal dance lessons until the end of high school, when he attended what is now the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Tomlinson moved to New York City in 1974 and joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem, an all-black dance company, and later joined the New York City Ballet.
At Ligon Middle School, 36 percent of students are black. About 35 percent of the school’s students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
During an assembly with the entire school on Thursday, he told students they should take advantage of the opportunities the magnet program gives them.
“You’re halfway to where you need to be,” he said.
K.C. Kurz, a junior at Enloe, was encouraged by Tomlinson’s story. Kurz is trying to decide whether she wants to pursue dance as a career, but she’s worried she hasn’t participated in enough professional dance organizations.
“I don’t have nearly as much performance experience as other people,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to know you can do it anyway.”
If you go
Students from Ligon Middle School and Enloe High School will perform dance routines choreographed by Mel Tomlinson at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, at Ligon Middle School, 706 E. Lenoir St., Raleigh. The event is free.