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7 Incredible Black Ballerinas Who Made History

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Black or African American ballerinas make up only 4% of the sport. The small number is down to social and economic factors. Ballet is an expensive sport, and companies that develop future ballet stars don’t subsidize the costs. Racism is another factor. 

Former Executive Director and CEO of the American Ballet Theatre Rachael Moore said that black bodies are considered unfit for ballet. The exclusion of black ballerinas means that young people don’t have role models and thus overlook the sport. 

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That notwithstanding, some black ballerinas fought for their place in history by taking part in the sport. Here’s a list of some African American ballerinas who paved the way. 

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Carmen de Lavallade

The choreographer and dancer got involved in dancing at an early age. She joined the Lester Horton at 16 and became a member of its Dance Theatre Lester Horton Dance Theatre. She acquired so much experience that she also appeared in Hollywood films like:

Carmen was awarded the Black History Lifetime Achievement Award for her work. 

Janet Collins

Janet Collins broke the colour barrier in the sport when she became the first black ballerina to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York City. Her love for dancing can be traced back to her time at the Los Angeles Catholic Community Centre. 

She was spotted by famous dancers who worked with her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get opportunities. A director at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo turned her down due to her colour. However, she didn’t give up and performed on some of the biggest platforms. 

Katherine Dunham

It’s no surprise that Katherine Dunham never thought she could pursue dance as a career. Lucky for her, a philanthropist sponsored her stay in the Caribbean to study dance. She was spotted through a group she formed in Chicago. 

After her studies, she crafted her ballet technique influenced by African America and Afro Caribbean. She later explained that it was a way for black ballerinas to show the beauty of black people. 

Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson is one of the pioneering black ballerinas. In 1990, she was the first dancer of color to work as a principal dancer in a major ballet company. One of her most important roles was in Cleopatra, which gave her international recognition. 

Anderson received glowing reviews. She was described as a powerhouse for her role. In 1990, Anderson was awarded the Special Jury Award and the International Critics Award. If you never got to watch her, you can visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C to see her pointe shoes.

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Pearl Primus

Pearl Primus was a black ballerina who used her platform to highlight the social and political happenings of her time. Her talent in dance was picked up early. It earned her a scholarship to the National Youth Association New Dance Group

In 1948, she got a grant and travelled to Africa and the Caribbean, where she learnt different dance styles. Later on, she choreographed some moves that highlighted racism and discrimination. 

After her success, she started her own school and dance group. One of her most famous dances was Strange Fruit, a protest against the killing of black people. 

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Raven Wilkinson

In 1955, Raven Wilkinson became the first black ballerina to get a full-time contract with a ballerina company, the Monte Carlo of New York City. Her interest in ballet began when she was five. She was enrolled on dancing school and first auditioned at the Monte Carlo in 1954.

Raven did that three more times before her eventual acceptance. That said, although Wilkinson broke the colour barrier, she hadn’t won the hearts of many. In the racially segregated South, she wasn’t welcomed. 

The ballerina had to change her appearance to travel for shows. Gradually, people found out Wilkinson was black and that compromised her safety. 

Wilkinson left the company and never worked for another American company.   

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Virginia Johnson

Born in Washington D.C, Virginia Johnson got into dancing aged 3. At 13, she joined the Washington School of Ballet. Johnson was the only African American ballerina. 

In 1969, she was one of the founders of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, created by Arthur Mitchell. She overcame her critics who questioned her ability to dance. 

She told Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre: “Who is anybody aside from me to say what I should do with my life?”

Johnson was the principal dancer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and resigned after 28 years.

The work of these black ballerinas doesn’t go unnoticed. The world has woken up to underrepresentation, so it’s only a matter of time before things change in ballet. 

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