Arthur Mitchell walks gingerly now. He once moved gracefully across dance stages around the world.

His mobility has ebbed, but not his spirit.

"Anybody who doesn't have the arts in their life is living in a desert," Mitchell said when he accepted a lifetime achievement award. "The arts ignite the mind. They give you the possibility to dream and to hope."

He's been called the Jackie Robinson of Ballet. Mitchell gained renown as the first African American to be a permanent member of a major ballet company when he joined the New York City Ballet in the mid-1950s. But his most influential achievement arguably came in 1969 when he co-founded the Dance Theater of Harlem.

"I want to change the world," Mitchell said. "I still want to change the world and make it a better place for everyone. And particularly for African Americans and in classical ballet. You know I was the first, so it's a responsibility on your shoulder."

Mitchell is now a dancer in the winter of his life. He's recovering from hip replacement surgery, and struggles with bad knees. Perhaps his reality is more poignant because the memory of how beautifully he once moved is still vivid.

"They’re taking something from your body," the dancer said. "And I’m used to moving and showing and demonstrating and I can’t do that. So psychologically it's very, very difficult."

Mitchell is no longer involved directly with the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Much of his time is now spent going through sixty years of pictures, programs and letters — archives that he's donated to Columbia University, where he was the subject of a symposium and much praise from his former students, like Harvard Law School Dean of Students Marcia Sells.

"He gave us a possibility to think and to dream," Sells said. "As he says, you have to have that. It is something I have carried with me."

Mitchell says the decision to donate his archives to Columbia stemmed from the historic tension between the University and the neighborhood.

"So I said, 'Hmm, you know what, Mitchell? Why don’t you put your archives at Columbia?'" 

"Let me be the go-between between the two aspects of the community."

"My goal is to have an interaction in the sense that I want the Harlem community to come to Columbia, Columbia community to go to Harlem. Not talk about it, but actually make it happen."

Mitchell’s Harlem roots go beyond the dance company he founded. He was born and grew up in Harlem.

"My father left my family when I was twelve years old," Mitchell said. "So I took over. I had two brothers two sisters and my mom, so I have always held two jobs.

"I shined shoes. Sold newspapers. And I worked in the butcher shop delivering meat. And then I got paid in meat and give it to the family."

He graduated from the high school for the performing arts in 1952 then studied at the School of American Ballet.

At the time, ballet was lily white. Was he pressured instead to take up Modern Dance or some other form of dance?

"I think you know me now for five minutes," Mitchell joked. "You think you’re going to pressure me to do what I don’t want to do?"

In 1955, he was asked to join the New York City Ballet, by the man who would quickly become his supporter, mentor and father figure — choreographer George Balanchine.

Mitchell says Balanchine designed ballets for him and specifically put him in dances with white ballerinas — fending off all efforts, often from television executives,  to keep Mitchell from dancing.

"And they'd say, 'George come here, we can't have him dance.' And he said if he doesn't dance we don’t dance."

Mitchell reached ballet's highest heights, performing all over the world. But in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Mitchell abruptly quit and returned home to launch his own dance company in a community that never had anything like it.

"There were many people that kept saying 'Black people? Ballet? Harlem? This man is insane.'"

Once again, Balanchine supported him.

"He said, 'My dear, I will help you providing you always are in service to the art form.' And I’ve never forgotten that."

Still, there were early obstacles.

"You know in those days people were afraid to go to Harlem," Mitchell said. "You couldn't get insurance."

But Mitchell says he always had support from the community.

"The community rallied around me because people couldn't believe that I'd become like a star downtown with New York City Ballet but I was dropping that to go back to the community where I was born which was Harlem."

There've been plenty of awards along the way, like the Kennedy Center Honors in 1993

More recently, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom of Speech and expression award from the Roosevelt Institute.

There have been memorable moments too, like a Dance Theater of Harlem performance in South Africa at the invitation of Nelson Mandela.

"He said, 'We want you to come, Mr. Mitchell, because you’ve proven that any child given an opportunity can excel.'"

Arthur Mitchell never married and never had a family. But in a sense, he's helped to raise thousands of children.

"Everyone is looking for the fountain of youth and the best way to acquire it is to work with the youth," Mitchell said. "Cause they really keep you on your toes, literally and figuratively, speaking and it changed my life and so knowing what it's done for me, I want to share that with as many people as possible."

Years ago Arthur Mitchell destroyed the myth that black people couldn't dance ballet.

His movement has slowed, but his purpose is alive.

"You are changing the perceptions of what people have, and that’s very hard to do. They say, 'Ah, you’re so articulate! Where are you from?' I say Harlem! You follow my thinking? 'Have you been to college?' No."

"I can go to China, I can go to Africa, they all know Arthur Mitchell because what we represent is what they all are striving for. And what is that? Pride."