Who were the first African American Ballerinas to grace major U.S. stages?
Janet Collins became the first African American dancer to join the Metropolitan Opera Company in 1951 and inspired black students to pursue their dreams.
One of those students was Delores Brown, who at 14 was a awarded a scholarship to further her ballet training. She later auditioned for the American School of Ballet and became one of six black students in the school. Her dream was to eventually join the ranks of the New York City Ballet. But after a year, she left the school, tired from the strain of working to support her craft.
Several years later, in 1957, she was invited to become a part of the first all black ballet company, the New York Negro Ballet. They were truly ground breakers.
They toured throughout England, Scotland and Whales. She was chosen to dance the Firebird pas de deux of The Sleeping Beauty.
Sadly, the tour ended abruptly when the company’s patron died unexpectedly. On coming back home she decided to leave the company disappointed by lack of support.
Raven Wilkinson’s story was quite similar. In 1955 she became the first African American hired to dance full-time in a major ballet company, the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo. Because she was so fair-skinned she was not openly recognized as a black dancer.
The company toured the US and Canada by bus. In one season they traveled over 19,000 miles and performed in 91 cities in 25 weeks!
She began to have problems when they toured southern states during the 60’s. She eventually was forced to leave the company for safety reasons.
Two of the first African American ballerinas were Delores Brown and Raven Wilkinson. In the video below both former ballerinas tell their stories of triumph and struggle to dance in the 1950’s and 60’s amidst racial discrimination.
Ms. Brown and Ms. Wilkinson appear in this video courtesy of YouTube.
If you enjoyed reading about these pioneer ballerinas, you’ll enjoy reading Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina: A Biohistory of American Performance.
“Joan Myers Brown is a legend in the world of artistic dance. We now have her fascinating story for the world in Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s brilliant book!”–Cornel West, Princeton University and author of Race Matters
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Here’s Janet Collin’s biography, written by Yaël Tamar Lewin (see her comment below) with Collin’s unfinished autobiography.