The Misty-rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color: Where have all the Others Gone?

By Theresa Ruth Howard

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There was an undeniable crackle in the air on the evening of June 12, 2012 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Soloist Misty Copeland was poised to dance her New York City debut in the title role of the Firebird in American Ballet Theater’s decadent new production choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. The energy of the lobby was charged, but the most notable difference was the overall hue of the theatregoers that particular evening. A cornucopia of sepia-toned people dressed in their Sunday best came from far and wide to support Copeland in this triumph. Professional dancers from all genres were as giddy as the little brown ballet students who had come to glimpse what could be their future. Even those who would normally put out their left eye before sitting through a night at the ballet had come to watch. Though the first half of the program was stellar, we all “endured” it, and the seemingly unending intermission, anxiously awaiting the first chords of Stravinsky’s haunting score and the rising of the curtain revealing the history-making moment.

misty-copeland-dancerIt was back in 2009 that Copeland’s star began to shimmer more brightly, with the help of musical genius Prince. He featured her in his Crimson and Clover video and then made her his “muse”, and affluent African-American ABT supporters championed her cause. With newfound visibility and support, Copeland began to gain well-deserved recognition. Two years prior,  New York Times writer Gia Kourlas posited a well-formed question in her article entitled Where are all the Black Ballerinas?. The article sparked great debate. Round tables and forums were assembled to discuss the extinction of the species. Copeland was the perfect answer to that very question, because if artistic director Kevin McKenzie were to promote her to the rank of principal, she would be the First African-American female in history to hold that position. There is much talk of “history” making when it comes to Misty, such that Copeland has become herself like a Firebird, a mythical creature, one so rarely glimpsed that it is hard to prove that it even exists.

Let us take a moment to deconstruct the construction of “The Myth” itself. The crafting of a myth is a curious thing. The very first ingredient you need to ensure that your myth has a place to bed is the inherent lack of something, a longing, a void that needs so desperately to be filled that people are willing to do or believe anything to fill it. The desperation is so great that they pay little attention to what is filling it, but focus only on the joy that the desire has been sated. With that established, we can now begin. The way to ensure the stability of your myth is to base it in a pinch of truth. It matters little how aqueous it might be; after all, this truth is merely a structure through which a bit of fantasy will be woven, such that you can hardly tell where the original truth begins and the other ends. It is the blurring of borders with material akin to the authentic matter, but with just a bit of shimmer added to distract the viewer from the transition. A proper balance of plausibility and sparkle must be present for a myth to take hold and thrive, just a pinch. It must be just real enough, and just fantastic enough, to be magical. One must be entranced, bewitched. It must feel comfortable and oddly familiar at once, so as not to evoke a questioning of the tale. Hence, it is not just the teller who must be committed. The listener must also agree to suspend disbelief. The two parties are complicit in giving the myth weight, thus anchoring the tale to the ground.

The mythologization of Misty was not born of mendacity. Quite the opposite. By all accounts,  its nascent root is somewhat altruistic. What could be the problem with giving little brown girls who want to be ballerinas someone to look up too? Nothing at all, although it  is the   “oneness” that has become problematic, except that as awareness of Copeland grew (as did her endorsements), others in the field, both present and past, were muffled and then muted, until their existence was being slowly smudged away. It’s true (the grain of truth) that for a long period of time, the presence of the black ballerina has been all but nonexistent. It is important to note that in 2007, when Kourlas wrote the article Where are all the Black Ballerinas?, it had already been 3 years since The Dance Theatre of Harlem had disbanded. Subsequently, the nest that had begotten a great number of ballerinas of color had been effectively swatted from the tree. Those dancers that were left all scattered. Now, due to the inherent racism in the ballet world (I said it, we know it, it’s real, we are big enough to call it for what it is), few of them found ballet companies willing to hire them. Alas, some went to Broadway  or to contemporary companies. Many landed at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where you can still see them performing today. Some ventured to Europe. The point is, there were black ballerinas.  Dance Theater of Harlem was like a hothouse for them. Dancers of color were drawn to it like sailors to a siren’s song. There was a deep and fecund history of them before Misty was born, and before she became a household name, but you would never know it by the way the narrative is being written. When DTH’s company closed, it was like the Men in Black pushed the pen light. All was forgotten. The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her – but you would never know it (unless you know it).

The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her, but you would never know it (unless you know it)

The mythologization of Copeland’s story, her journey and the glorification of her achievements (which have been great and many) are not the problem. She deserves the accolades. The issue is that when the narrative assigns Copeland with the title of “only”, and often “first” in many instances, it is inaccurate. Here is where the construction of the myth kicks in. It is inaccurate, either by the omission of those who have come before or by the length of time since the previous nameless person achieved said goal. The effect has been to bury a long line of African American Ballerinas that preceded her. There are many, but seldom are their names and achievements acknowledged when we are talking about African-American females in Ballet. Presently it is all Misty all the time; it is a great PR machine at work. The truth is that Misty may well be the “only” in her time, but the way the narrative is being written today, you would think that she was the first, and the only ever, that she is blazing an unmarked trail, and because she has become the “face” of the “Black ballerina” for this generation, people believe it to be true.

The truth behind the myth is that Misty is walking on a path that, though overgrown from lack of use, was cleared before her, but you would never know it unless you know it. There is  a sort of erasure that is taking place. It is quite easy to do, as much of African-American history is written from a revisionist perspective if it is recorded at all. If we as a people do not keep the records, who will? Seldom does white America come into the stacks of our archives (except for one month a year which is designated for a cursory lesson of the vast and far reaching contributions of African-Americans) to learn of our history, which is American history . When it comes to dance history, and ballet specifically, there is  even less interest and knowledge of that history. Therefore, it has been both harder to preserve and easier to alter, or eradicate.

Over the past 5 years we have seen the meteoric rise of Misty Copeland, and although her Q rating has gone up, her ranking at the American Ballet Theater has not. Here is where the mythology starts to show some fissures. When Copeland began to gain some support for her singular (and duly deserved) position at ABT, there was a campaign of sorts launched. “Get the word out about this girl! She could do what has never been done, she might be able to be the first African American Female Principal of ABT!” That is the first granule of truth.  Copeland was and is still poised to make history if and when promoted. However, when the PR machine got started, Copeland’s Wikipedia page cited her as being the first African-American Female Soloist in the history of ABT. This is untrue. She is in fact the third to hold this ranking (admittedly an abysmally low number overall), having been preceded by Anne Benna Sims in the 1970’s and Nora Kimball in the mid-80s.

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Nora Kimball

Two decades is a long time. Some might say “It might as well be a first.” For almost 2 generations of dancers it is, but in reality it is not. There were two women in the American Ballet Theater who were the “Misty Copeland’s” of their day. In the 70’s or 80’s they were the ones little brown girls went to the ballet to see, their eyes searching frantically for a glimpse of themselves on stage. If you had seen or been inspired by either one of them and their artistry, you would take issue with their omission. I can recall being mesmerized by Nora Kimball, who was like a mythical creature on stage (I saw her dance when she was with the Frankfurt Ballet). She was beauty in motion, but as a woman she was….breathtaking. For me it was Debra Austin, who was a Principal dancer at the Pennsylvania Ballet in the 80’s where she danced roles in Swan Lake, Coppelia, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Giselle and La Sylphide. As a young student I would watch her in rehearsal, mouth agape.

(*Ms. Copeland’s page has since been amended to reflect that she is in fact the fourth African-American soloist (and third female) at ABT.)

photo credit for Debra Austin - George Balanchine observing as Debra Austin performs Ballo Della Regina Photo, Steven Caras
photo credit for Debra Austin – George Balanchine observing as Debra Austin performs Ballo Della Regina Photo, Steven Caras

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That having been stated, if you were to Wikipedia Anna Benna Sims of Nora Kimball you would be left wanting for information. That might be partly due to the eras in which they danced. We are in an age where every action, both banal and noteworthy, is documented equally. Both women danced in a time where creating video was not as easy as whipping out a cell phone and posting. Back in the day, archiving was an actual job that required a degree, and it was done as a means of preservation, not marketing and self promotion as is typical today. Their stories have not been scanned and uploaded, they might be uninterested, or daunted by the task, and no one else has has done so. Thus like a photograph in time, the images begin to fade, fade, fade away…

These women were also pioneers. They wielded the first axes to cut down the redwoods of racism and disbelief in a time when it was much harder to do. For them to be overlooked is unconscionable, not just for African-American dance history, but for American history period. To her credit, Copeland herself has consistently credited the groundbreaking accomplishments of her mentor Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American woman to dance with the Ballet Russe, who in 1955 had been inspired by Janet Collins, the first African-American to dance with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Prior to Collins joining the Met, she had been accepted into the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo, but declined the invitation as she was asked to paint herself white to appear on stage.

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Raven Wilkinson
Raven Wilkinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janet Collins
Janet Collins
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Misty Copeland in Firebird. Photo: Gene Schiavone, courtesy of American Ballet Theatre.

Beyond Wilkinson, Copeland and journalists alike have seldom by name, acknowledged those who have actually walked her path, as a result both Sims, Kimball, have been reduced to less than footnote in the history they wrote, and have all but been forgotten except those who witnessed their endeavors.

Let us go back to the evening of Copeland’s Firebird debut, and see how the myth was strengthened, the New York Daily New stated:

“But in June 2012 — when Copeland became the first black ballerina in history to dance the lead in “The Firebird” for a major classical ballet company, composer Igor Stravinsky’s breakthrough work”

Though this statement is true in part,  in ways it is grossly incomplete, especially when we are talking about African-American ballerinas and making history. You see, on Jan. 12, 1982, Dance Theatre of Harlem debuted a new production of “The Firebird” at New York City Center featuring Stephanie Dabney as the Firebird. She went on to perform as the Firebird at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles — and around the world.
Now there might questions as to whether or not DTH can be considered a  “classical” ballet company, “neoclassical” or even a “major” ballet company, given its standing today (after disbanding in 2004, the company was recently rebooted in 2009 and is fighting its way back). However in the 80’s the company was in it’s heyday, and stood alongside the likes of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. Its repertoire included many Balanchine works (one of its founders, Arthur Mitchell, was a protege of Balanchine) as well as classical ballets  like Giselle and Swan Lake Act II, among others. DTH was a direct reflection of the racial temperament of the times. It was founded in 1969 by Mitchell and Karel Shook in an effort to first, show that African Americans could dance ballet, and more importantly to provide a place for them to dance, as many ballet companies would not employ dancers of color regardless of their ability, especially if they were brown skinned (as we see, we have made little progress through the years).
Stephanie Dabney
Stephanie Dabney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is important for all to understand that this is not an attack on Misty Copeland, she is one of our pioneers, and the greatest one of her time, but I am confronting the narrative being crafted around her, and the mythology that is being evoked.

10923446_913063978727927_729676676622644322_nWhether or not you want to include Dance Theatre of Harlem in the category of “classical” or not, the fact that their multi-cultured production of The Firebird that spawned not one but many black Firebirds was not acknowledged by journalists is negligent. Firebird, along with Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, were signature pieces for the company. Stephanie Dabney, Judy Tyrus, Charmaine Hunter, Christina Johnson and Andrea Long (a former member of New York City Ballet for 8 years), were just some of the incredible African-American ballerinas that danced that role, most to critical acclaim. I recall a particular performance at Washington’s Kennedy Center when Charmaine Hunter danced the lead role and received a standing ovation that lasted almost 5 minutes and was suspended in air during the final tableau. I, in my maiden’s costume, was brought to tears by the reception. Is that not worthy of mention?

Charmaine Hunter
Charmaine Hunter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In America, successful African American’s cannot peacefully co-exist, they have to eclipse.

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Dance Theatre of Harlem is the foundation of the long line of African-American ballet dancers that contributed to our now muted legacy. Many alumni have not only gone on to dance for major companies (classical, modern and contemporary) but have graced Broadway stages, choreographed for major companies (classical, modern and contemporary), have worked commercially, and are in the trenches every day training young dancers, some of whom look like them. For these little brown boys and girls, they are a flesh and blood, tangible reminder that their dream is not just a dream, but also a reality. When a teacher that looks like them stands in the front of the room, they are transformed from “other” into likeness. The import of this I cannot express, but if you are a person of color you know what I am speaking of. It is the thing that white people take for granted, that is at the foundation of the feeling that you don’t belong somewhere.
Baby Ballerina, Melanie Person currently the Co-director of The Ailey School
Baby Ballerina, Melanie Person currently the Co-Director of The Ailey School

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But I digress,

showimageVirginia Johnson, the current artistic Director of DTH and former principal dancer with the company danced the company’s critically acclaimed production of Giselle.  DTH’s Co-founder Karel Shook fought for the production. He said “They will never take us seriously as a classical company if we do not dance a classic”, but he insisted that it make sense for a company that looked like Dance Theatre of Harlem. Thus it was set in the Bayou, a Creole Giselle. Brilliant.  It is a travesty that this important part of history is virtually unknown and is almost absent on the internet. You cannot Google it, and sadly even Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Wikipedia page is sorely lacking in information (in fact none of the names of the Firebirds mentioned above are cited). On the topic of searching the internet, here is a fun fact. When one searches Sims or Kimball, often Copeland’s name and image come up but both of their Wikipedia pages are sparse. Have we gone back to our African roots, carrying on our history through word of mouth griotism? We cannot afford that. Our information must be on the highway.  We can do better, we must do better.

It is important for all to understand that this is not an attack on Misty Copeland, she is one of our pioneers, and the greatest one of her time. What I am confronting is the narrative being crafted around her, and the mythology that is being evoked, and what is being left out of her narrative, that is a part of our history.

I am not here to hate but to educate. In my opinion, Misty is a pawn in the “Room for One” rule that  this country subscribes to when it comes to African-Americans in terms of achievement. It occurs in publishing, in Hollywood, in fashion, and the arts and other fields as well. In America, successful African-Americans cannot peacefully co-exist, they have to eclipse. Not to say that there is a full and complete erasure of the former for the up-and-coming, but  the pools of resources, opportunities, publicity and most importantly, financing, get diverted away from one and redirected towards another, making it almost impossible for the one to survive, let alone thrive. It is not something that is controlled by the artists themselves. It is driven by the machine of the industry, and susceptible artists often get caught up in it. Unbeknownst to them,  their vagus nerve kicks in with that fight or flight instinct .

We saw supermodel Naomi Campbell dominate the scene until Tyra Banks was discovered, and instead of there being space for the both of them (like there was for Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington) the two were pitted against each other. When writer Terry Macmillan burst onto the publishing scene in the 90’s, she was compared to Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison (which is like saying that Jackie Collins is like William Faulkner) There were phrases like “Macmillan, the new Morrison” bandied about. Why? The former’s body of work and achievements aren’t wholly eradicated, but since the number of roles and resources for African-American work is so limited, something often has to give. There is an unspoken double standard in this country. Two time Best Actress Oscar winner Bette Davis (1935/1938) has never been eclipsed by two time Best Actress Oscar winner Meryl Streep (1982/2011). They both hold their rightful place in history, and there is room for both of them.

On April 9th, Copeland reached another milestone in her career when she danced the Odette/Odile role in Swan Lake with the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center. Her Prince Siegfried was danced by Brooklyn Mack, also African-American. You would think that surely this is a first. Even Copeland herself thought as much, as she stated:
“I never imagined myself as Odette/Odile…I thought even if I became a principal, this part might not be given to me because no one like me had done it before.”

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But wait,  African-American principal ballerina Lauren Anderson and Cuban American Carlos Acosta danced these roles at Houston Ballet in 2001. I am certain that it was an oversight on her part, and this goes to my point. When this information is not acknowledged, through time it is forgotten.
In 1990 Lauren Anderson  was made principal of Houston Ballet, a major classical ballet company, and was a principal there for 16 years.  She is often credited as being the “first” female African American principal of a major company, (however remember Debra Austin in the 80’s at Pennsylvania Ballet, see how tricky it gets?)
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Lauren Anderson is a deeply brown-skinned woman, a brown that you cannot wash out with lights; she is clearly a black woman on stage. For her to be cast as the lead in Swan Lake at that time in Texas is truly amazing. When Anderson made history, there was no “branding” machine. There was not the market for endorsements, commercials and reality television as there is today. There was not a group of well-placed, powerful people to champion her cause (though there should have been). It was her in a studio with her ax, chopping away at redwoods, in Houston, Texas of all places. Her name deserves to be somewhere in the history of African-Americans in ballet. It is important to note that when she was making this history, DTH was still in existence. African-American ballerinas were not extinct; they were rare, but not unheard of. Perhaps this is why her achievements were not viewed with the grandeur they deserved.

So who is at fault for the lack of information, abundance of misinformation or omission? Is it Misty? Do we hold her responsible for not constantly acknowledging her sisters in ballet? Is it the PR team that has whipped the myth like Frances Underwood of House of Cards? Is it the journalists lack of due diligence? Are they responsible for driving the narrative? Is it the African-American dance community for not taking care of our own historical archives and keeping our legacy alive and vibrant? I charge all of the above. Yes, Misty could make more of an effort to evoke the names of those who came before her, those who are now in the trenches at ballet schools around this county, and stand in front studios every day as flesh and blood examples to brown girls and boys who have a dream of becoming ballet dancers. Their presence says, “Yes you can, because I did”. But I will say that she has done a great deal, she is out there, the poster child for her generation, and there is a great deal of pressure and expectation placed on her head. This is now a global discussion because of her, and the stance she has taken as a Black woman, and getting the message out there.

*It has been brought to my attention that in the Nelson George documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” at the end there is a mention of Sims, Kimball and even a picture of Anderson in Swan Lake, and an interview with former ABT member Robyn Gardenhire. Better late than never, but one can’t help but wonder if this is is kind of like the amendment to the Wikipedia page…the “Whoops, people are starting to notice, let’s correct that”. Even if it is, we’ll take it!!! It’s a step in the right direction.

Is it her PR team? Yes, they are working overtime, and they are doing a bang up job, you can’t Google “ballet” and not
get Misty (you can’t Google Nora Kimball and not get Misty). She has endorsements, commercials, billboards, a documentary, a dance wear line, books, she is one of Time Magazine’s most influential 100 (you go girl!). Technically they aren’t paid to be ethical or thoughtful about “the legacy of Blacks in ballet”. They are paid to build, and to cash in on the “legacy of Misty”. We can’t expect much from them.

What about the journalists? Here is where the hammer comes down. Writers need to do their research (and that means going beyond reading the last 5 articles that were written inaccurately on the subject). If you are not a dance writer (and some of them have fallen short too) then look for the information, make a call, ask a question, don’t be (yes, I’ll say it) lazy and indulgent toward your angle. It’s called due diligence.  Dance Magazine can do better with featuring artists of color regularly; those we know, and those we should know (broader than just the 25 to watch). Often we see the same faces being featured over and over again. Tell us something we don’t know, tell us something we SHOULD know.

And lastly to the community, yes we are to blame on a level. If we don’t document, protect and herald our history, who do we think is going to do it? Dance Theatre of Harlem, I charge you to put the names of the beautiful artists that helped build the legacy that you are working to live up to and restore, on your Wikipedia page! Why is it that we can name a slew of white ballerinas – Suzanne Farrell, Natalia Makarova, Melissa Hayden, Sylvie Guillem, Heather Watts, Gelsey Kirkland,  Darsi Kistler, Alessandra Ferri, Wendy Whelan,  (and one does not negate but informs the other)? You can effectively chart ballet’s evolution by connecting their dots. They are all beautiful and talented and have their individual page in history as they should. Most ballet dancers, black, white or other, would have a hard time naming 5 African-American ballerinas, and it is not because they have not existed, it is because they have not been valued and held up in the same way as their white counterparts. Such is the case in America across the board. #blacklivesmatter, #blackcontributionmatters…. WE HAVE DOTS, in the plural not just one, and we need to post them so that we can connect them and reveal the constellation of our history.
I wrote this not as a slam to a woman of immense talent, courage, strength and beauty.  No I wrote this:

In honor of those sepia-colored pioneers in pointe shoes, I would like us to restore the record, actually present the record, so that all of the little brown girls who dream of being sylphs or swans can know that it is more than possible, not just because one did it but because many have. Where the one can be explained away, chalked up to an anomaly, one hundred is a legacy, rich and multi-hued, with a diversity of economic backgrounds, body shapes, sizes, divergent levels of facility and possibilities. In our history they can find someone who looks like you! I wrote this so little brown girls with fuzzy edges, afro puffs, and braided buns can know that they too have a  history, and it is long and strong and cannot, will not, be denied. Your ancestors have done what others have when all was against them, when others thought they could not. They proved them wrong, and went beyond. Your lineage danced on the great stages of the world, for kings, queens, dignitaries, heads of state and global icons. They are YOUR royals. They were here, they ARE here, and though their names may not be shouted or written on high, we will make sure that their names are whispered gently in your ears and etched into your  memory, that you will not forget, and that they are not forgotten. Know your history, know yourself.

Let this be an open “Role” call.
In the comment section below please enter  your name or the name/s of black ballerina/s who has danced professionally. Please leave the company affiliation(and rank if you like) and any other information you think is important to remember. Everyone’s contribution is valid, and valuable and worthy to be acknowledged.. This is gonna a be fun!!!
 (if this was sent to you via Facebook, or some other link Please leave your entry on the http://mybodymyimage.com comments to keep them together and as public as possible!)

Please leave roll call listing at http://www.museumofblacksinballet.org/rollcall/

fill out the Form and we will have them added!! the Revolution has begun!!!

143 thoughts on “The Misty-rious Case of the Vanishing Ballerinas of Color: Where have all the Others Gone?”

  1. Off the top of my head list of African American Ballerinas who I had the pleasure of knowing/and or dancing with during 2000-2010 (*…from companies other than DTH…The list would be far more extensive if I includes the beautiful artists that have danced for DTH.):
    – Aesha Ash
    – Bahiyah Hibah
    – Alicia Graf Mack
    – Heather Brooke Malone-Wolf (North Carolina Dance Theater, Oakland Ballet, Nashville Ballet)
    – Natalia Johnson (DTH, Urban Ballet Theater)
    – Adriane Richburg (DTH, Urban Ballet Theater)
    – Danielle Campbell (Ballet San Antonio, Georgia Ballet, Oakland Ballet)
    – Paunika Jones (DTH, Columbia City Ballet)
    – Perris McCraken
    – Amy Johnson
    – Nena Gilreath (Ballethnic, Atlanta Ballet)
    – Kayla Rowser (Nashville Ballet)
    – Toni Doctor (Atlanta Ballet)
    – Heidi Cruz-Austin (Pennsylvania Ballet)
    – Jasmine Roberts
    – Georné Aucoin
    – Whitney Edwards (Nashville Ballet, Georgia Ballet)
    – Sylvia Dansby Williams (Columbia City Ballet)
    – Indya Childs (Ballethnic, 2015 “25 to Watch”)
    – Laila Howard (Ballethnic)
    – Saunjuli Delao
    and me:
    – Angela Harris (Georgia Ballet, Columbia City Ballet, Urban Ballet Theater)

    (**I will think of more…and in the meantime, I hope others post some names too!)

  2. Bethania Gomes , Afro brazilian and Cape Verdean ballerina . Former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal dancer. Started at as student at the DTH School Ensemble. Danced Glenn Tetley’s Dialogs, Spartacus Pad de deux , Firebird and others.

  3. Whitney Edwards (DTH:Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble, Nashville Ballet, Nevada Ballet Theatre, The Georgia Ballet, California Ballet)

  4. Lydia Abarca, Dance Theater of Harlem
    Tiffany Glenn, Ballet San Jose
    Tai Jimenez, Dance Theater of Harlem and Boston Ballet

  5. Céline Gittens is a current dancer in Birmingham Royal Ballet. As of April 2015, she is soloist rank on their website.
    In 2012, she and and Tyrone Singleton of Birmingham Royal Ballet performed the lead roles in the company’s production of Swan Lake. Both are mixed-race, and according to the Guardian, it was the first time that the ballerina role has been taken by a black dancer in the UK.

  6. Dance Theatre of Harlem & Miami City Ballet Dancer 1990-1997
    Miami City Ballet Instructor 1997-2007, 2012-2015!

  7. Personally, I’ll never forget Lydia Abarca and Paul Russell bringing down the house with their Corsaire pas at the State Theater with DTH back in the mid-Seventies.

  8. My daughter just transitioned from ballerina to elementary school teacher after dancing professionally for 12 years. When she was a teen, she participated in the ABT summer intensive for several years. It was there that I first saw Misty. She was a dynamo from day one. There were no doubts in my mind that she would dance for ABT and eventually become a principal. It wouldn’t have mattered what color she was. Her ability, facilities, and artistic talent were the forces that elevated her to stardom. In my opinion, the hype that is created by the media and ABT is provoked by agents to create awareness and motivate people to attend the ballet. Our society has lost sight of the beauty this art brings to the table. In general, as we all know, too much emphasis is placed on sports, technology, and racing to the top of a nameless mountain. It is sad that the pioneers that went before her have been conveniently forgotten. It does go hand in hand, however, with our present educational focus on mathematics and english, alongside of an inappropriate amount of time spent on history.

  9. Nikkia S. Parish – PA Ballet, DTH, Washington Ballet

    Akua Parker, Tai Jimenez, Dionne Figgins and a host of others too numerous to count….

  10. Ok you went IN!!! That is awesome, thank you so much. This is so fun to see the names and affiliations let’s keep it going!!!

  11. Ok what about Former NYCB’s Ayesha Ash (who went on to also dance for Alonzo King’s Lines) and Ms Andrea Long who was also a NYCBer for 8 years and then went on to be a principal with DTH and was also a Firebird!! ROLL CALL!

  12. Thanks for the well written article. It was needed and helped to highlight others who widened this path.

  13. Theresa, Thank you for speaking your truth, our truth and the ballet world’s truth. I stood on the shoulders of and admired the following ballerinas who were ballerinas, trail blazers and cultural ambassadors at Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) :
    Patsy Rickets, Yantchie Stevens, Lydia Abarca, Virginia Johnson, Gayle McKinney, Sheila Rohan, Susan Lovelle, Laura Brown, Elena Carter, Melva Murray-White, Rhonda Sampson, Roslyn Sampson, Yvonne Hall, Cassandra Phifer, Karen Wright. And then let’s not forget Sandra Fortune Green and Sarah Yarborough.

    From Karen Brown
    1973 – 1995 Principal Ballerina -The Dance Theatre of Harlem 2000 – 2006 Artistic Director of Oakland Ballet
    2010 The New York Dance & Performance Award AKA
    The Bessie Award
    2006 Pioneer Award from the Oakland Bay Area
    Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women Inc.
    2003 Mozart to Motown Arts Pioneer Award
    2002 ABC TV Local Hero Award
    2001 City Flight Magazine Bay Area’s Ten Most
    Influential African-Americans
    1984 New York Times’ Ten Best Performances:
    Agnes DeMille’s Fall River Legend

  14. This was such a well said article and thank you so much for posting something I also felt like needed to be said. There are ballet dancers in the past that paved the way for young African American dancers here today that are never talked about or recognized. I LOVE how when people think of ballet they think of Misty Copeland. This is an AMAZING thing and I wish her so much continued success. I think thought how she is being presented is as if she is the “first” in all aspects which isn’t all true. There are dancers before her and current brown ballerinas all over the country in amazing companies that are paving the way for young brown bunheads that seem to be, like you said, vanishing.

    San Francisco Ballet Dancer- Kimberly Braylock
    Joffery Ballet Dancer- Dara Holmes
    ABT Corps de Ballet dancer- Courtney Lavine
    DTH and former Lines Ballet Dancer- Ashley Jackson
    Lines Ballet and former National Ballet of Canada Dancer- Adji Cissoko
    NYCB Dancer-Olivia Boisson
    Atlanta Ballet Dancer- Kiara Felder
    Ballet West Dancer- Katlyn Addison
    Ballet West Dancer and former DTH member- Gabrielle Salvatto
    Former Ballet West member and Current Kansas City Ballet Artist – Whitney Huell
    Charlotte Ballet- Amanda Smith
    LA Ballet Dancer- Jasmine Perry

    Many others were named above but I just wanted to add that,
    Aesha Ash was also with Lines Ballet and Bejart Ballet after she left NYCB. And so many more that are doing phenomenal work in expanding what people perceive/think about ballet.

  15. In about 1974 Lydia Abarca and Paul Russell were guest Sugar Plum and Prince in Ruth Page’s Nutcracker in Chicago.

  16. Wonderful article but I am surprise that it keeps mentioning Wikipedia which really should not be used as reference. It is not researched to be a “true” form of journalistic reference that should be cited and is discouraged as being a source in journalistic writings.

  17. Kiara Felder (Atlanta Ballet) and Nayomi Van Brunt (New York Theatre Ballet) are two extremely talented young African-American ballet dancers who starred in my 2014 short film “Janet: A Silent Ballet Film” (which deals with, among other themes, racism in ballet, and which honors the legacy of Janet Collins, who, as you mention, broke the color barrier in ballet, becoming the first African-American prima ballerina to dance full-time with a major company, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, beginning in 1951). I recommend “Night’s Dancer” by Yael Tamar Lewin to anyone who wants to learn more about the fascinating life of Janet Collins. It’s the only biography of her so far to be published.

  18. Robert Carter, Principal, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo; drag ballet, yes, but he is a prima and a brilliant dancer who has performed worldwide.

  19. Alicia Morant – Shes a breathtaking, musical, powerful yet graceful ballerina! She Danced with DTH, was a Professor, Concert Director, & Co-Director of the USC (Carolina) Dance Program several years ago, where she developed the curriculum that established the current dance Major & Minor..it was simply a theatre & PE course with 30-80 students before she arrived!! Many of her students moved on to careers in dance, who had never danced before her! Amazing impact. She’s an amazing award winning choreographer and has also danced with Complexions, & starred in The Lion King on Broadway as a lead, a singer, and a dancer. She is the personal trainer for celebrities like Britney Spears & numerous professional athletes. Kobe Bryant is a fan of her work! From what I know now, she’s still dancing and choreographing for ballet companies internationally and doing projects with contemporary artists like Common, Qtip, Rufus Wainwright and many others.

  20. When did I say that journalists should use Wikipedia? When I am referring to use of Wikipedia I am not necessarily talking to journalists I am talking to young dancers, or people who are interested in learning about these people in general. and let’s get real when you search someone it is the first thing that comes up, it is the unofficial/official go to when you want to know something about anything. It has become a layperson’s staring point, then comes the articles written about the subject (that journalist need to get right!!)

  21. •Alicia Fisher (Sonia Alicia Morant) danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Lion King on Broadway.
    •Robert Carter, Senior Ballerina at Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

  22. We don’t have adequate historical records of ballerinas of color because we don’t have adequate photographic and video documentation of any form of dance pre-21st century, and because historians haven’t taken up the cause – for lack of funding and lack of institutional interest. The history of ballet has only started to be properly written, without the quaintness and the sexist and racist overtones of the past.

    The problem with current efforts to set the record straight is that anyone can set the record straight! Anyone with a pulse can get on to Wikipedia and write whatever nonsense they want, not to mention myriad other websites.

    We can’t stop people with mischievous intentions or the plain ignorant from revving up the engine of the Internet. But we can pledge to ignore them, to stop reposting them on social media – and instead promote the books, articles and films underpinned by thorough, dispassionate research. Unfortunately this kind of work is not sexy and can take years to publish.

    On the subject of Misty: Copeland is one of a tiny handful of dancers today whose name can fill an opera house. http://bachtrack.com/review-swan-lake-misty-copeland-brooklyn-mack-washington-ballet-eisenhower-theater-kennedy-center-washington-april-2015 She follows in the footsteps of the peripatetic Anna Pavlova, who brought ballet to new audiences, and Margot Fonteyn, who was a bona fide rock star. It is not that these dancers had unique artistic gifts or were head and shoulders above others; rather, their charisma, their tenacity, their good fortune, their publicity machinery, and the social climate of their times conspired to elevate their visibility. They revived audiences for live performance.

    Ballet needs Misty right now: this is an industry in perilous decline. Thanks to Under Armour, to Time magazine, and to the countless of sites, both fluffy and serious, who have spotlighted her, we now have interest from thousands of people who previously wouldn’t be caught dead at the ballet. Celebrate that.

    To build on the momentum, we have to minimize divisiveness and petty rivalries, encourage proper scholarship (which resides increasingly at universities with well-funded dance programs), and pressure the institutions at the forefront of change – DTH, ABT, Washington Ballet, etc. – not just to provide more opportunities for dancers of color, but to graciously recognize past achievements.

    Also important to recognize that the playing field has not been even for all dancers “of color.” Dancers of East Asian descent, Hispanic and Cuban dancers, are present in increasing numbers in ballet companies worldwide, whereas dancers of African descent, and darker-skinned dancers in general, face greater prejudice. The principal instruments of change will not be affirmative action or diversity programs, but increasing intermarriage, and global mobility. The swan corps of the future will not be a mix of black and white, but all shades of brown and olive.

  23. This precisely why I wanted to create a roll call. We the people who are in the field dancing, WE have to take care of our own history. To create an archive of our own. Unfortunately some of those references that you mention are difficult to find, or simply don’t exist. In addition, “this” cyberspace place that we are in, IS the new history book, it IS the new film bank. I and think everyone else is supporting and celebrating Misty…My question (and forgive me if I misread the “tone” of your comment) it sounds like you are saying that if we say “Hey there is a long history here” that somehow translated at NOT celebrating her accomplishments? Am I taking you comment about divisiveness out of context? actually this here is about a curriculum of inclusion…

  24. Prima Ballerina Sandra Fortune Green of the Capital Ballet Company. Jones Haywood School of Ballet also had as alums Renee Robinson of Alvin Ailey, Chita Rivera 2 Tony Awards, Hinton Battle, 3 Tony Awards, Sylvester Campbell and many others. In 1972 Fortune-Green began training for the prestigious Second International Ballet Competition in Moscow, Russia. She was the only African American to compete in that competition.

    Sandra performed such classics as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Let Corsaire, and Don Quixote. She also performed as a guest soloist with Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Santo Domingo Ballet in the Dominican Republic. In 1973 she garnered Honorable Mention at the International Ballet Competitions in Varna, Bulgaria. She is now the artistic director of the Jones Haywood School of Dance.

  25. Stephanie Powell – Oakland Ballet, DTH
    Robyn Gardenhire – Cleveland Ballet, ABT
    Both are beautiful, amazing ballerinas who now teach and inspire the next generations of young dancers.

  26. Thank you for being willing to address what many who do know a little more history than is being discussed by the PR team. You have said what we have wanted to. Misty deserves the accolades but there is also danger in raising a generation of kids who believe she is the “only” African American dancer in Classical Ballet. Adding to the list, some may have been mentioned already, but I have this list that I add to each year being the parent of a working professional ballet dancer of color.
    Andrea Long
    Tassia Hooks Johnson
    Raven Wilkinson
    Aesha Ash
    Lauren Anderson-Houston Ballet
    Tai Jiminez
    Whitney Edwards
    Courtney Lavine-ABT
    Sandra Organ Solis
    Debra Austin
    Cleopatra Williams-Houston Ballet
    Erica Lynn Edwards-Joffrey Ballet
    Nayomi Van Brunt-Atlanta Ballet
    Kayla Rowser-Nashville Ballet
    Elisabeth Mensah-Ballet Memphis
    Dara Holmes
    Rebecca Bowls
    Autumn Hill
    Alicia Graf Mack
    Yolanda Jordan
    Karen Brown
    Toni Doctor-Atlanta Ballet
    Robin Gardinhire
    Judith Jamison (Harkness Ballet and Ailey)
    Heidi Cruz-Austin
    Nayara Lopes
    Brenda Edwards (ENB)
    Diamond Ancion
    Michaela DePrince-Dutch National
    Katlyn Addison (Canadian)
    Lydia Abarca
    Whitney Huell-Ballet West, Kansas CIty Ballet
    Allison Stroming
    Autumn Hill
    Rebecca Bowles
    Kiara Felder
    Adji Cissoko (NBoC)
    Kimberly Braylock (dancer of color)-SF Ballet
    Alicia White
    Carmen Felder
    Jasmine Perry-LA Ballet
    Christina Spigner-Miami City
    Precious Adams-English National
    Ashley Hannah Davis-Ballet Memphis
    Jasmine Perry-Los Angeles Ballet
    Nardia Bardoo
    Rachel Jones

  27. I know, I get so giddy, at both the names, and the level of participation, that we as a community are doing this, together!! I love reading what others have to say about the people they are bringing forth…wow

  28. awesome!!! I think that it’s great that people are named multiple times, it sort of says something right? wonderful thank you!

  29. The roll call is fantastic! I love seeing all the names. With regard to a prior post by C. Escoda, can you kindly clarify what the “people with mischievous intentions or the plain ignorant that are revving up the internet” are doing or saying? I think that Ms. Howard has done an excellent job of setting the record straight. Although we may not have adequate historical records of ALL ballerinas of color, we have enough information to know that some of the achievements attributed to Ms. Copeland that are described as “first”, “only” and “never before” are indeed not true.

  30. Oh I used to live with Ms. Lambe, her petite allegro was always sick!!! Love her! yay, this is fun

  31. Please add Maurya Kerr, who danced with Alonzo King’s Lines and now has her own company, tinypistol, in San Francisco.

    I’m confused about Raven Wilkinson – she does appear in the movie about Ballets Russes, on tour with the company.

    And thank for a very important article.

  32. Wow thank you for saying what I would not. You lose a lot in the written word, tone and intention can get muddled. I THOUGHT that she might be eluding to my article…however…There is proof actually, THE ROLL CALL is proof, We are witnessing here…There is documentation of both the things I cited and more, they have just been overlooked to serve the narrative. It’s all good there is enough shine for everyone!!!

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