First African American Ballerinas [Video]

Delores Brown
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Delores Brown. Image source: Excerpt from YouTube video.

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

Remember to “Share” this interesting story about the first African American ballerinas with your friends or “Tweet” us. Thank you and enjoy!

Update: 12/30/2012

Here’s Janet Collin’s biography, written by  Yaël Tamar Lewin (see her comment below) with Collin’s unfinished autobiography.

Ms. Lewin contacted me to share her book, Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins, with our readers.  You’ll find her book on Amazon or at the Wesleyan University Press site.

 

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11 Comments

  1. What an interesting article and very nicely done!

    Reply
  2. This is interesting and there are some similarities of black singers and musicians who performed with all white big bands back in the 1930s and 1940s, long before integration was happening in sports, which always got so much more publicity.
    When Benny Goodman hired Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson to play in his quartet in the late 1930s it was unheard of having an integrated jazz band led by a white bandleader.
    It took vision and guts to do that and it also made musical history as well. Same was true when Gene Krupa hired African American trumpeter Roy Eldridge to join his band.

    Reply
    • Adam,
      Thank you so much for sharing so much knowledge on the history of African American musicians in the 30’s and 40’s.
      It does take great vision and courage to follow through on your dreams as a musician, dancer and athlete especially back when few questioned the status quo.
      I am grateful to those who came before us and fought for a more just social and artistic playing field. I know there is still more to do, but ultimately folks like the ballerinas in the article above and the musicians you mention took the first steps towards equality in the arts.
      -Romy

      Reply
  3. Totally wonderful story Romy…. I loved this one. Black dancers are getting the recognition they deserve…. a little at a time….

    Reply
    • Jim,
      I’m glad you stopped by and enjoyed this article post.
      Yes, you’re absolutely right: step-by-step.
      -Romy

      Reply
  4. Dear Romy,

    You (and your fans!) might enjoy my recent biography, “Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins.” It was published in the fall by Wesleyan University Press, and here is the link:

    http://www.upne.com/0819571144.html

    Reply
  5. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d without a doubt donate to this superb blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

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    Reply
  6. I really enjoyed this segment and will be sharing it with my class that happens to be all black ballerinas.

    Reply

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