Ballet is a movement which tells a story; every dancer that has performed the art form has one. As beautiful as ballet can be, the path of opportunity in becoming a dancer is challenging. Soultrain.com is placing a center stage spotlight on ten exceptional Black ballerinas whose stories now echo in the limbs of today’s dancers. In the midst of racial issues these ballerinas, simply, danced. Their contributions put in motion more than pirouettes and pointed feet. These women are just a handful of dancers that began careers during an era of adversity. Dancing professionally was difficult to achieve but far from impossible. The artistic freedom of dance is a great part of our culture. Here’s a list of ballerinas that are just as important today, full of passion and soul.
Awarded a scholarship at 14 to train in ballet and in her prime, Delores Brown joined the New York Negro Ballet in 1957. Though not in the business long her talent led her to perform throughout Scotland and England.
The prima-ballerina was the first African American to debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1951. Her eclectic style compelled her to persevere and choreograph dance until she retired in her late forties. As a teen she refused to paint her face white in order to perform with a dance company. She once said, “I thought talent mattered, not color.”
In 1949, Carmen de Lavallade received a scholarship to study with dancer Lester Horton. She later appeared as a dancer in the film Carmen Jones starring Dorothy Dandridge. She succeeded her cousin Janet Collins as prima-ballerina at the Met Opera in 1956.
In 1937, Katherine Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group in Chicago, giving upcoming dancers chances to perform. Renowned in the dance community, she helped steer the path for others. From appearing on Broadway to perfecting her craft, heading to the West Indies for inspiration, she is a legend even beyond her death in 2006 at age 97.
Thelma Hill performed with dance companies in Europe and the US. In 1958, she formed an ensemble with other dancers, including Alvin Ailey. In 1960 the troupe became the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
As the Artistic Director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1989-2011, Judith Jamison’s knowledge kept the rhythm of dance going. Her early career of dance shaped her experiences as a business woman and performer.
Virginia Johnson began studying ballet at three years old. By age 13, she won a scholarship to dance with the Washington School of Ballet. Her journey flourished, performing during the early 70s in stage productions such as Swan Lake, A Street Car Named Desire, and Giselle.
The first African American to be hired full-time with the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo in 1955, Raven Wilkinson overcame discrimination even when being told to keep her race a secret from the public. Her fair skin kept her performing until she refused to lie. The business was tough, but her love for ballet surpassed those odds.
A classical ballet dancer during the 1920s and into her adult years in the 1950s, Lavinia made quite an impression. She helped new dancers in Haiti, Bahamas, and Guyana develop their talents through the 1970s.
A lead dancer with Alvin Ailey’s company in 1972, Donna became a strong performer. Her fluid twirls and jumps were artistic and skillful. In 1991 she and her husband began the Donna Wood Foundation, creating a platform for young dancers to explore the business.
Elishia Peterson is a blossoming freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. Her work has been featured on publications including Crème Magazine, Cred, and Examiner covering budget fashion stories. While in pursuit of her Masters degree in Writing Studies she strives to always be creative in her craft.