In honor of Juneteenth, American dance companies from every corner of the United States profiled Black dancers who made national and local impacts on the dance community. As I learned about dancers who I hadn’t known much about before, I realized that the stories of Black ballerinas often go untold. Therefore, I’d like to share some of the lesser told tales with you all.
This article does not discuss American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland. This exclusion is not to discount her achievements. Copeland is one of the most recognizable ballerinas in the United States, and there are many profiles on her already. Many people who don’t know a lot about ballet can recognize Misty Copeland and her achievements.
This article spotlights Black ballerinas who are as groundbreaking as Copeland is. You can be assured, however, that the dancers profiled here have referenced Copeland as inspirations for themselves and the future of ballet.
Here are three Black ballerinas who overcame adversity to make dance history:
Raven Wilkinson (1935-2018) was the first African American woman to dance for a major ballet company. She danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Dutch National Ballet, and the New York City Opera. Her long career spanned more than 50 years.
In the early years of her career, Wilkinson had to keep her race a secret. However, she wouldn’t deny that she was Black if asked. As public knowledge of her race spread, she was excluded from performances, and her life was threatened. At one Ballet Russe performance in Alabama, the Ku Klux Klan interrupted it to look for her.
Wilkinson’s racial difficulties almost forced her to quit dance for good, but she decided to keep going. She joined the Dutch National Ballet for seven years. After a brief retirement, she joined the New York City Opera’s ballet ensemble. She remained with them for 38 years, until the company folded in 2011.
In her last years, she was Misty Copeland’s inspiration and mentor. Copeland credits Wilkinson as the reason she is present in the field today. When she died at the age of 83, her brother said that Wilkinson never wanted to be a pioneer. “All she wanted was to dance.”
Lauren Anderson became the first African American principal ballet dancer at the Houston Ballet in 1990. Not only was she the first for Houston, but the first for any ballet company. She spent her entire 16-year career with them before her retirement in 2006.
Anderson had talent from an early age. However, Houston Ballet Academy director Ben Stevenson thought that Anderson’s chances at a dance career weren’t promising. Fortunately, her determination proved him wrong. Stevenson gave her the lead in their production of Alice in Wonderland. Anderson thought her casting was a mistake, however. She assumed Alice had to be white. She confronted Stevenson, who told her, “the only color in art is on a canvas.”
As she rose through the ranks, The Houston Ballet staff tried their best to shield her from racism. However, they couldn’t stop everything. From the outside, she got hate mail. From the inside, jealous dancers told her that her success was only because she was Black. These comments hurt her, but she learned “to push through and rise above.“
Today, Anderson remains on Houston Ballet’s staff as the director of the Education and Community Engagement program. In this role, she teaches master classes and lectures about her experiences as a Black ballet dancer. As of 2016, her pointe shoes are on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Michaela DePrince is a Sierra Leonean-American dancer. At 16, she was one of the youngest dancers in the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s history. Now 25, she is a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet.
DePrince was born in Sierra Leone in 1995 during the 1991-2002 civil war. She lost both her parents and became a war orphan. She was delivered to an orphanage, where she faced discrimination for her vitiligo on her chest and neck. Despite these struggles, she found her dream to dance after seeing a magazine cover with a ballerina on it. Inspired, she hoped to one day become a dancer herself.
In 1999, she was adopted by the American DePrince family. They raised her to be aware of her heritage and gave her the opportunity to pursue her dreams to dance. However, DePrince’s pursuit of her dream was not void of struggle. She often heard comments discounting her future just because of her Blackness.
One of DePrince’s fiercest battles was to wear brown tights. Although it is more common to see the traditional pink tights, they are supposed to match your skin color to accentuate body lines. DePrince knew brown tights were best for her body. However, she was blocked from wearing them. Many of her teachers didn’t consider brown to be “appropriate.”
Today, she has a successful dance career and is able to wear whatever tights she wants. She garnered accolades for her success and attention to her story. Since 2016, she has been an ambassador with War Child and advocates for children in armed conflicts.
These were just a few “Pointes”
These are only a few of the many Black females who have made an impact on ballet. As a former ballet dancer myself, I know for a fact that these are the more well-known stories. There are many dance students and professionals who already know these. However, just because we know them doesn’t mean a general audience does!
Therefore, I encourage you to do your research on Black ballerinas! There are so many other Black dancers who deserve the same attention and care. Here are two articles that provide places to start learning about the Black ballerinas of the past, present, and future: