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!!!

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

  1. First I would like to thank Ms. Howard for writing this incredibly beautiful and fact-based article. [Please know that I don’t mean to cast any shade on Misty’s parade.] With that stated, I think some credit also needs to go to Houston Ballet and the incredible vision of Ben Stevenson (who never discriminated against dancers because of their ethnicity, origin, or religious beliefs). I realize that this “comment” section is designed for naming additional African-American ballerinas; however, I believe that Mr. Stevenson has made some of this history possible: he recruited Adrian Vincent James (the first black dancer HB had ever hired); promoted Sandra Organ Solis to Soloist (the first black ballerina to achieve that rank at HB); and promoted Lauren Anderson to Principle (the first black ballerina to achieve that rank within a “white” renown classical ballet company). Controversy was a word that Mr. Stevenson ignored. He stood by the talents of his dancers: Lauren Anderson (when she received death threats), and Li Cunxin (during an international deportation crisis). Behind every great ballet dancer is a Director who believes in their talents (and sometimes risks their own career to mentor them). [Misty Copeland has a well-paid PR team.] Again, thank you for helping to set the record straight.

  2. Theresa Ruth, a roll call of today’s generation of dancers of color is a wonderful idea, esp. from those who have actually seen these dancers perform and can comment on their particular gifts. So I echo the shout outs to Céline Gittens (BRB) and Kimberly Braylock (SFB). But the problem with social media is that it is very flattening; lumping all these dancers together with previous generations, without the benefit of context, without the nuances of their individual journeys, can be very misleading – esp. to young readers who are not up on their dance or social history. We should be getting our primary information on the great dancers of yesterday from dance historians and from ballet companies’ websites and official publications. Yet there seems to be no mention of Lydia Abarca, or Nora Kimball, for ex. on DTH and ABT sites. (Okay, ABT does list Kimball in its repertory archive for pieces in which she was original cast but you’d have to know what those pieces were to find her name.) Many companies who put videos on YouTube don’t even bother to name the individual dancers… (Where are the dancers’ unions when we need them?)… My point is that we need greater rigor and scholarly discipline in identifying these pioneers and in situating them in history, even in these informal forums.

  3. Right and this is the point, this is just the start… Trust.. There isn’t ANYONE on the DTH website- that is why I challenged DTH to “handle their business” I take issue with the concept of you saying Lumping…We ARE lumped together as Ballerinas period, all of these women who make it to the professional level are valid. And Who is it that gets to determine “greatness”? You think that Copeland is comparable to PAVLOVA and Fonteyn, some would take GREAT issue with that. Popularity and artistry are not synonymous. And you have to look at their bodies of work..I think Copeland might have a few more Swan Lakes to get under her belt before we “Lump” her together with Pavlova, Fonteyn, Makarova, Kirkland..I am not commenting on Copeland’s talent, but the landscape in which she exists.

  4. Carolyn,Thank you so much, yes this is a place that I have called the ROLL CALL but it’s also a place to tell those stories, that is GREAT and important information to have. When we are talking about racism in ballet world to know that Stevenson took a stand and opened those doors and created those opportunities is important and valid, this space is for the ROLL CALL and the discourse, bring it!!!

  5. Theresa Ruth, if you read my review of Copeland’s recent Swan Lake (link provided earlier) you will see I certainly do not place her on a par with the sainted Pavlova and Fonteyn! I explicitly mentioned her inexperience in the role and how it showed in the performance. My comparing her to P+F was driven by her celebrity and her ability to sell out an opera house. Pavlova and Fonteyn were pioneers in their own eras; they marched to their own drummers, they challenged the system, they brought new audiences into the theatre. I think this is a fair comparison to what Copeland is accomplishing today. Whether she goes on to become a great ballerina capable of tackling the iconic leading roles is another matter altogether.

  6. Alicia Morant- Robert Ivey Ballet Principal / DTH / Bill T Jones/Complexions/Broadway
    Tameika Gray-DTH
    Akua Parker-DTH/Ailey/Ballet San Jose
    Lisa Lewis-DTH/ Broadway
    Virginia Johnson-DTH Prima!!

  7. There’s Awa Joannais corps member at the POB and Olympiada N’gobi at Mikhailovsky which is no small feat.

  8. Some more interesting links:

    An event at Howard U on African-Americans in ballet history, with Misty Copeland.
    http://dancemogul.com/news/?p=7957

    Check out this footage of former FLOTUS Patricia Nixon giving Sandra Fortune a bouquet after a performance.

    http://www.criticalpast.com/video/65675057320_First-Lady-Patricia-Nixon_Julie-Nixon_Capitol-Ballet-Guild_Sandra-Fortune_Mr-Cantrell.

    The story is there in the primary sources, but the knowledge will be lost unless it is packaged in a form that people who are not serious historians can access without digging through mountains research material.

  9. A very short segment of a program ABC did about Dance Theater of Harlem in about 1990. It was on a VHS tape that had degraded very badly, but I managed to salvage 2 short segments and one longer one. I’m posting this as it has a little bit of footage of Firebird.

    Maybe you could have a different place where one could post films? I don’t want to appear to be derailing the discussion! 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0vU9l0eUCo

  10. Ms. Howard, Wikipedia would probably take a dim view of DTH updating its own article, but I wish you would. Wikipedia is an imperfect source of information, to be sure, but you’ve done so much research, it seems a shame not to improve some of the articles you mentioned. You’d be doing both dancers and lay people a great service.

  11. Ah, Lada, Lada Lada…
    It’s absolutely RIDICULOUS for anyone tho think that Wikipedia would “Take a dim view” when an organization updates its own page. here is what Wkikipedia says about editing
    “However, it is Wikipedia policy that information in Wikipedia should be verifiable and must not be original research. You are invited to show that information is verifiable by referencing reliable sources. ”

    Now THIS Is why I think that DTH SHOULD BE THE ONES TO EDIT it’s page what is a MORE VERIFIABLE SOURCE THAN THE ORGANIZATIONS PERSONAL ARCHIVES!!! THEY HAVE THE DATES THE NAMES OF DANCERS, THEATERS, OF CASTING..I don’t have that.
    Lada, I get the sub rosa implication: “Since YOU know it all, YOU do it” (said like sticky-faced, lollypop waving 6 year old) and you are missing the point and injecting a sentiment that really does not exist here, and has no place. I think that by starting this incredible ROLL CALL I am being in and of service, and it is the start…

  12. This article has articulated something I have been trying to express for a while. As great as it is that Misty is getting all this publicity, journalists need to do more than just write the umpteenth article highlighting her excellence.
    One thing that I think is also consistently left out of the conversations are regional ballet companies that have strived to hire more black dancers in recent years.

    ballet memphis has a number of black dancers: http://www.balletmemphis.org/dancers

    as does charlotte ballet:
    http://www.balletmemphis.org/dancers

  13. This article has articulated something I have been trying to express for a while. As great as it is that Misty is getting all this publicity, journalists need to do more than just write the umpteenth article highlighting her excellence.
    One thing that I think is also consistently left out of the conversations are regional ballet companies that have strived to hire more black dancers in recent years. Ballet Memphis and Charlotte ballet both have a number of black dancer.

  14. Good point and that also speaks to the hierarchy that exist the tiers of companies, and levels. Now we can agree that all companies are not created equal but should they, and the artist who are member be disregarded because they are not as prestigious as another? One’s work, their contribution has to account for something…(I think)

  15. As my previous post acknowledges, when I first read this article I was elated, because it appeared that someone (with a viable by-line), finally had the courage to write an accurate account of the history of African American Ballerinas in the United States. (More consisely, to clip Misty’s “Swan Lake” wings.) However, after further perusal, it appears that my enthusiasim might have been a bit premature. After re-reading the article, it appears that the initial argument, “Misty Copeland claiming to be the first African American (of a major classical ballet company), to dance the role of Odette/Odile, and to do so with another African American cast as the prince,” got lost. That honor goes to Lauren Anderson when she danced the role with the Houston Ballet in the 1990s, and when Anderson was partnered with Carlos Acosta (who was half-Cuban and half-African American). Yes, you give them credit, but then denounce it when you state: “(albeit Debra Austin preceded her as a principle in the 80’s at Pennsylvania ballet),” and identifying Carlos as “Cuban American.” [When I was a young dancer, I wanted to dance with DTH, but that never happened. Was it because I didn’t have the talent, or because I was white?]

  16. Theresa, BRAVA! You got the ball rolling with this hiccup in history regarding the brown ballerinas. We have to share the legacies with the next generation. I would like to add Gayle McKinney- Griffith-DTH and Germany; Elena Carter-Wyatt-DTH and there were other companies she danced with. Judy Tyrus-DTH.

  17. I hear what you are saying – and this is where need to clarify our history- When I looked back and saw that in the 80’s Austin was a principal with PBC, and that Lauren was made principal in 1990, so when people are saying that Lauren is the first, perhaps she is actually the second, (I need to find the dates for Debra). I referred to Acosta as Cuban American, because that is what he is, I doing so I honor his Cuban heritage and the legacy that he has created for them. All’s fair…I think that’s ok. As to your last bracketed statement, All I can say is there were always white dancers in DTH, the first one I remember was Jo Cippola…Ineke Rush came up through the school, and there were a few others that I can recall..DTH was ALWAYS an internationally diverse company.but I’m not sure what that statement meant….But there were white dancers that Mr. Mitchell hired…

  18. It would seem that Debra Austin joined Pennsylvania Ballet in about 1983, via a review I saw about changes in the company.

  19. Great article! Hopefully we will get this important history straight. I am adding another dancer who is often overlooked. She is MYRNA KAMARA. She studied at SAB, became a NYCB apprentice, and joined the company in 1984 alongside her classmate , Wendy Whelan. She left the company in 1989. Her other credits are as follows:
    1989-1990 Principal/Soloist- Bonn Ballet, Germany
    1990-1996 Principal and Soloist- Miami City Ballet
    1996- 1999 Principal – Bejart Ballet, Switzerland.
    For the last 15 years, she has been a guest artist, most notably as the principal ballerina in Aida with the Arena di Verona in Italy. She continues to dance as a guest artist and is also a teacher and coach.
    Her website is: http://www.myrnakamara.com
    Instagram: https://instagram.com/myrnakamara (@myrnakamara)

  20. Ms. Howard, the bracketed comment was a veiled (obviously failed), attempt at a comparison. I would never have been accepted into DTH, not because I’m white, but because I didn’t have the talent. With that in mind, perhaps Misty will never be promoted to Principal, not because she’s black, but because there are other ballerinas, within ABT, more talented.

  21. Thanks for the clarification. You are absolutely right (now go into hiding for saying it lol) It’s very true. There as been very little critique as to whether the chops are there or not- as the “room for one” rule goes “We” are not supposed to question just support as my good friend Brian Harlen Brooks says in “Faux Pubic Solidarity” I think we feel that when there is a “one” co close, whether the best candidate or not we cannot afford to question or criticize for fear that we (as a community) might lose that chance.. I call it the Halle Berry effect…(Now I’m going into hiding like Cheney) peace out!

  22. thank you, that seems right to me as I would have been “rather” young and in the school at that time to see her…ok this is how we set the record straight, question did she come IN as a principal, I would think so with her resume at that time…

  23. Funny story about the incredible Andrea Long.
    Aesha Ash in NYCB complained about not being in Concerto Barocco. The ballet master told her she is not turned out enough for the ballet. Aesha began to tell everyone that it was because she is black. Until she said this to Andrea Long who answered back ‘Aesha! stop playing the black card! I danced barocco my entire city ballet career and I’m blacker than you!’ God bless the truth and amazing strong ballerinas like Ms. Long!

  24. The following article states that the beautiful Myrna Kamara was promoted to Principal in the Fall of 1995 (Miami City Ballet).
    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1995-04-26/features/1995116172_1_miami-city-ballet-world-of-ballet-corps-de-ballet

    This article, written in 1989, lists Debra Austin as a Principal Dancer.
    http://articles.mcall.com/1989-10-22/entertainment/2720234_1_jeffrey-gribler-pennsylvania-ballet-frankfurt-ballet

    The following article, written in 2014, states:
    “When she was a dancer, Austin made history as the first African American female soloist at the New York City Ballet. According to The New York Times, “ . . while in the New York City Ballet, (Debra’s) smooth open jump and general vivacity there suggested a strong stage presence.”

    When Austin later joined the Pennsylvania Ballet, she was the first African American woman to become a principal ballerina at a major dance company in the US. Ricky Weiss, then Pennsylvania Ballet’s Artistic Director, says, “Debra Austin had the most beautiful feet and legs of practically any ballerina I ever watched dance”. ”
    http://www.trianglefaaaa.com/dance2/black-ballerinas-at-the-carolina-ballet

    [So, it appears that defining which ballet companies are “major” seems to be the deciding factor of who was the first African-American Principal Ballerina.]

    Another interesting article (actually comments), by Alastair Macaulay.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/16/books/review/Letters-t-003.html?pagewanted=print

  25. Great information!!! RE: Major Ballet company… Yes we are finding that that can be a slippery slope, we might need some rosin!

  26. Only rosin? I don’t think that even Super-Glue could compete in this heated argument! The best website I could locate is the following, which states: “This roster lists all known, nonprofit dance companies with budgets above $100,000, reflected by a company’s expenses, for the fiscal year ending in 2012.”
    https://www.danceusa.org/nationalcompanyroster
    Using the criteria of Ballet, I came up with the following list:

    1. NYCB
    2. San Francisco Ballet
    3. ABT
    4. Boston Ballet
    5. Houston Ballet
    6. Pacific Northwest
    7. Miami City Ballet
    8. Joffrey Ballet
    9. Pennsylvania Ballet Company
    10. Atlanta Ballet

  27. Ms. Howard, on a final note. When Debra Austin was a principal with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company, they were a “regional” company who merged with the Milwaukee Ballet in an effort to stay afloat. Yes, I believe the beautiful Debra Austin deserves her props and place in history, but she was not the FIRST African-American Principal Ballerina of a major classical ballet company (in the United States). That honor belongs to Lauren Anderson.

  28. Here is the deal at the time that Ms. Austin was a principal at PBC it WAS in FACT recognized as a major company, one that had a close affiliation with NYCB in fact Peter Martins was an adviser and NYT critics traveled to Philly to review the company. We can split hairs, because some might make the same argument about Houston. You are SO missing the point, here I doubt that either lady would want to get into a death match for the title, however the recognition for their work and the roles they danced is what is of import here.

  29. The film of Debra Austin in La Sylphide comes , to my knowledge, from a filming made in preparation for a national broadcast of the Pennsylvania Ballet on the PBS .

    If one performer came before another, it’s not disrespect to point it out, it’s a circumstance of time and doesn’t diminish anyone.

  30. The film of Debra Austin in La Sylphide comes , to my knowledge, from a filming made in preparation for a national broadcast of the Pennsylvania Ballet on PBS .

    If one performer came before another, it’s not disrespect to point it out, it’s a circumstance of time and doesn’t diminish anyone.

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