Mercedes Ellington, Broadway and television tap dancer, choreographer, director, and producer who has preserved and extended the musical legacy of her grandfather, Duke Ellington, and who has been hailed as "one of the brightest dancing stars this universe has ever known," was born to Ruth Silas and musician and bandleader Mercer Ellington. The United States has had few notable three-generation families in the performing arts, and even fewer still are families are those of color. The Ellington family is one of those unique entities. Mercedes however, chose a different road than her father and grandfather; instead of music, she chose dance. She began her dance training very young and continued with several instructors until she won a scholarship to the Metropolitan Opera School of Ballet, where she made her New York City Opera debut in 1977. Upon completion she enrolled in and graduated from Juilliard, where she studied with the great Antony Tudor and Donald Sadler, with a degree in ballet and modern dance. Even as a student, she was set apart as a beautiful, young dancer whose musicality and technique were dazzling. Her work continued in a steady and rapid flow.
In 1952 she broke the color barrier on national television in the sixties by appearing on the Jackie Gleason Show as one of the June Taylor Dancers. She was on the show for seven years, eventually became captain of the troupe and June Taylor became and remained a mentor to Mercedes throughout her career. Shortly after her television tenure, she launched her Broadway career as a featured and chorus dancer in No, No Nanette (1971), Oh Kay! (1991), Happy New Year (1980), The Grand Tour (1979), and Harry Chapin's The Night That Made America Famous (1985). She was also featured in George Wein's Jazz Festival productions Black Broadway and Wild Women Don't Get the Blues. In 1981 she starred with Gregory Hines, Judith Jamison, Hinton Battle and Gregg Burge in Sophisticated Ladies, dancing eight times a week with her father conducting an orchestra playing music by her grandfather. Performing led to choreographic and directorial assignments, nationally and internationally. Her role as choreographer for the Broadway production of Play On! (1997), a takeoff of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night set in Harlem during the latter part of its first renaissance, and with music by Duke Ellington, won her a Tony nomination.
From 1982 to 1992 Ms. Ellington was the artistic director of Balletap, USA, aka DancEllington. In 2001, for Black Heritage Month, she directed Four Women, a profile of the wives of Louis Armstrong. In 2002 she contributed her services for the same cause with a salute to Langston Hughes called Cotton Club Rhapsody at New York's Club La Mama. She also directed the Broadway Cares/ Equity fights AIDS Tribute to the Spirit of Harlem in 2001; and in 2004 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Nothin' Like a Dame. Ms. Ellington also choreographed/staged Queen Esther Marrow's Walk Tall Gospel Show which received a five-star rating in Berlin and a European tour. In 2009 Ms. Ellington was honored with a FloBert Lifetime Achievement Award by the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day.
With the multitude of theatrical and choreographic credits, and her continuing tours with small and large musical celebrations of the music of Duke Ellington which she conceives, directs, and choreographs, Ms Ellington most humbly describes herself as "A Composer of Dances and Situations."
[Sources: Maurice Curry, Introduction to the 2009 FloBert Award Ceremonies, Tap Extravaganza, New York City, June 16, 2009; Constance Valis Hill, Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History (2010)]