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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!!!

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

  1. There is the fabulous Robert Garland, Dudley Williams, Keith Saunders, Kellye Saunders, Andrea Long, Endolyn Taylor, who all dance with DTH!

  2. Thank you Ms. Howard, for your insightful and beautifully written piece. In addition to all the many things you have been able to achieve in your very creative life, you are also an impressive dance historian. Thank you for all you have taught me, that I would never have known without you.

  3. As a publicist and former dancer (and, for that matter, former journalist), I take great offense at this:

    “Technically they [publicists] aren’t paid to be ethical or thoughtful about “the legacy of Blacks in ballet” …We can’t expect much from them.”

    If indeed you don’t hold publicists to such standards, shame on you. Any publicist worth his or her salt does thorough research and understands that accuracy strengthens the narrative we promote on behalf of a client, as well as the relationships we must build with journalists and clients to build and maintain our careers. Everyone involved in the telling of Misty’s story (journalists, publicists, Misty herself) bears equal responsibility in being true to the history on which she is building. Why would any one player be exempt?

  4. Perhaps I should have written Publicist/manager/ team…There can be many agendas at play and many dollars at risk. I never said that publicist don’t do research, they may well, but they are also at times required to spin…we all know it. I totally agree that everyone plays a part and I said as much, I gave no one am exemption…I simply said that I did not think that a publicist/manager automatically has to think beyond the client into preserving history or making sure that other people’s stories get honored…

  5. Courtni Wilson–DTH/OK Festival Ballet/Alabama Ballet/Columbia City Ballet

    Ingrid Silva–DTH

  6. I found the article very informational and true. My daughter danced for 15 years with a major ballet company. She is African American and enjoyed just being able to dance. I feel she was not given many major roles because of her color, NOT her talent because she definite had the talent. But I am thankful she had a humble spirit and just wanted to dance.

  7. If she is dancing with a professional company presently please go the http://museuemofblacksinballet.org- to the exhibits,and fill out the form to add her. as for the other ballerinas listed in the article their accomplishments directly correspond to the roles that Misty has danced and the history of Black ballerinas that existed before her…

  8. Thrilled to read this well written and extremely well researched discussion about the diversity groundbreakers in the ballet world. I am equally happy to welcome Misty Copeland to the ranks of women and men of color in this performance art. She is a remarkable young woman, with a up-by-her-bootstraps story. However having had the chance to know and work with Lauren Anderson at the Houston Ballet in the last years of HER remarkable career, I have commented repeatedly on the ” first ever” status assigned to Ms.Copeland, calling for a closer look into ballet history and the discovery that there is a line extending further into the past than Misty’s current notoriety.
    Not only was Lauren amazingly powerful and athletic in her technique but truthful, emotionally and charismatic onstage. She was Ben Steveson’s muse for many years, even as he nutured the career of Houston prima donna, Janie Parker. Seeing the pictures of Lauren with Misty on stage, during her bows following her debut in Swan Lake, I was gratified to see Ms. Copeland giving Lauren the floral tributes she had received. Though others may have missed her, Misty Copeland seems well aware of those that came before. Perhaps those helping to promote her breakthroughs should be,too.

  9. It may not be due racial discrimination that the ballet artists who have an African-American decent are so seldom found performing on stage. In my opinion, the inspiration from the famous ballet performers is not felt by the current generation and that I think it is the biggest factor why we don’t see a handful of African-American ballet dancers today.

  10. WONDERFUL WONDERFUL article. I have been riting so many of the same things on various forums for a while now. but your article is about 3x longer than mine. You also hit the same dilemma in that this is in no way a diminishment of Misty Copeland. I too have even heard her in interviews acknowledge by name many of those who paved her way. Not talked about at all has been the element of sexism in that so many companies have been integrated by Male dancers long before female. It isn’t just Misty’s publicists either. How convenient this all hits the media in the 75th anniversary season of the ABT, but how unfortunate it is that the meme generated is that the ABT is the sum total of Ballet in America. Like Mists herself, ABT is a fine company, but the story could be reversed. Rather than lauding it’s integration one could question why it has actually been one of the LAST companies to do this……worth a bit less praise, not more. Finally I was so happy to see you include FIVE dancers and choreographers who I have photographed over the years. There are so many incredible dancers of all nationalities and races. During February’s “Black History Month” I tried to feature a different Black dancer each day on the “Ballet Lovers” FB page. I had enough different dancers in my collection to do this but I also work as a stage designer and alas deadlines there intruded. I did get to post a lot however and perhaps it helped a bit to show there are GREAT dancers out there of ALL colors. I love your idea too of comments acknowledging them. In case she hasn’t already been identified I would add to the list Michaela DePrince, who has ALSO written a book and had a tougher childhood than even Ms. Copeland’s (-; . There is also Danny Tidwell and Zherlin Ndudi on the Male side. Keep up the great work. I hope you get lots of shares.

  11. Thank you for this piece. I remember Lauren Anderson from my time running the library for the National Ballet School (in Toronto, Canada). If my memory serves she danced Firebird with the National Ballet of Canada in 2000 or thereabouts.

    In 2002, I put together a Black History Month display for the students of NBS at that time, featuring ballet dancers of the past like Janet Collins and Raven Wilkinson.

    I was intrigued Ms. Wilkinson, mainly because little was written about her performance period in The Netherlands. So I emailed the National Dutch Ballet and asked for info. Imagine my surprise when a package came in the mail from NDB with ORIGINAL documents: programs, cast lists, etc. They also sent me a jpg of Ms. Wilkinson dancing in Giselle (1968 – Margo Fontayne and Rudolf Nureyev were the principals) . I put the info up on the web.

    And everyone ignored it. Nobody cared.

    The only person who bothered to contact me about it was a journalist – he asked for permission to print the photo so he could show it to Ms. Wilkinson herself. As he told me later, she had not seen it in decade.

    After a while, I gave up . I donated the documents to the New York Public Library, Dance Collection – with luck they have not been tossed in the trash. And I took the site down as having no one to discuss the work with depressed me.

    I fear that I was ahead of my time, asking the questions other historians were unwilling to ask. What I would say to those who are archiving the toe shoes now is to remember to think beyond the fact that the dancer is black. What did s/he dance, HOW did s/he dance, with whom did s/he dance? Who is keeping video footage of their work and who is critiquing it?

    And whom did they influence? Misha Baryshnikov was one of the best ballet dancers in the world but it took a black man, Aivin Ailey, to teach him how to speak English let alone how to dance in new ways..

  12. Thank you for your interesting and informative article. Much writing and information like this needs to be added to the annals of American History.

  13. My sincere thanks to all of the contributors who are filling in holes in this narrative of African-American dancers. The mysterious absence of references to my extremely talented friend Anna Benna Sims, or “Benna” has been distressing to say the least. I had the privilege of dancing with her in Frankfurt Ballet (73-77) under Alfonso Cata, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and later for a short period at Cleveland Ballet under Dennis Nahat. A powerful and charismatic dancer, Benna could move easily between the classics, Balanchine and numerous modern choreographers of the time. Her brief time as a soloist at ABT was notable to be sure and no walk in the park. It is interesting and worth noting that her talent went well beyond dance as well and into costume design and production where she’s had a successful career breaking new ground again with her unique talent. Please keep up the good work in bringing to light the contributions of so many talented dancers.

  14. If you or someone you know have access to academic databases, there’s a dissertation Joselli Deans wrote in 2001 called Black Ballerinas Dancing on the Edge: An Analysis of the Cultural Politics in Delores Browne’s and Raven Wilkinson’s Careers, 1954-1985. It’s an invaluable compilation of information on women who’ve come before.

  15. Really a great peace of article, I enjoyed reading it. I believe it all because we follow your blog, I never comments on blog but the peace of beautiful and worth article made me comments on this, Keep up the good work.

  16. I am the mother of Tai Jimenez, former principal dancer at DTH and Boston Ballet. We must not forget the parents of those wonderful dancers who braved economic sacrifices and continued to bolster our daughters’ and sons’ self confidence amid rejections not because they were not talented or lacked training, but because they were black. I remember one evening I was waiting for her in our old Volkswagen to finish her class at SAB. She appeared so sad. When I asked her what was wrong. She told me one of her classmates refused to hold her hand because she was black. Imagine: those words coming from the mouth of a young child.
    Finally, why did it take so long to make Misty a principal? She should have been promoted a long time ago. It reminds me of Marian Anderson. When she was finally admitted to the great halls of classical music, she had passed her prime. I sincerely hope Misty Copeland has many years left before she must hang up her toe shoes, as all ballerinas must do.
    God bless you, Misty, and all those wonderful ballerinas of the African diaspora who came before you.

  17. There are not more black ballerinas because black girls today are more interested in twerking, j-setting, and partying than they are in the decades of grueling training it takes to become a successful ballerina! There are not enough black mothers who are involved enough in their daughter’s lives to take them to daily dance classes and give up their weaves/nails/40’s/spinning rims to pay for the classes, endless pointe shoes, and training that it takes to be successful. The only reason misty copeland was even introduced into the world of ballet it because a White Woman shoulder the burden of cost and time after her black mother refused to step up . She has only been promoted because she has a powerhouse PR machine and the PC lawsuit threat. Her technical skills are seriously lacking (which is why all of her routines are watered down versions of what the more talented ballerinas perform) and she is more concerned about promoting her “blackness” than improving her skills. There are not more black ballerinas because they just do not have what it takes to be great without a White person dragging them along. It is like asking the question “why aren’t there more White j-setters or twerkers or african hoodoo dancers”.

  18. Hi Theresa,
    I just happened upon this article and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading it.Thank you for paying tribute to the black ballerinas of the past and future. I feel a keen sense of the “legacy” concept because of my grandfather had how he paved the way for black classical tenors.I was fortunate enough to have been given several wonderful roles to dance in my careen,and although I didn’t dance Odette or Giselle, I did dance sugar plum Fairy in Boston, so I hope I inspired a few young ballet dancer of color here in Boston .

  19. ERIKA!!!!! ROOMIE!!!!
    I can’t wait for MOBBALLET to tell your story, It is so important and we (who have inhabited that world) are ALL a part of it!!
    I hope you are well

  20. I do not agree, in fact the premier twerker, (according to Youtube is a white girl) google it! so that part of your argument in baseless. And the rest is just based in sterotyipical rhetoric that I won’t honor by addressing, all are welcome to their opinions and we don’t all have to agree, opinion and truth are not synonymous.

  21. Dear Ms. Howard, considering the fact, that I came across your wonderful article “The Misty-Rious Case Of The Vanishing Ballerinas Of Color: Where Have All The Others Gone.”, just recently, today, February 14, 2016, I doubt what I have to say will be listed as part of the many contributions on the subject. What I have to contribute non the less is worth having you and everyone else who is a person of color and interested in the truth, read, research, and apply to themselves, from this day forward, making it a normal realty in: quoting the caption next to your article, “Creating a healthier body image through Acceptance, Appreciation and Respect.” And doing so because we have the best reason in the world to do so. I will try not to make this too long which I tend to do when I write about something that is very important and should be told. This I feel is of the most importance because it reveals the truth that we as a people should know, should have always known, but many do not know, because it has been hidden from us in plain sight. The great thing however, is that it is available for us to be found and never be hidden from us again. I am referring to something that most black folk have in our homes but do not always open because we have allowed others to open it for us and tell us what it says, even though we are the ones that a great deal of what is being said in it, is about, as a people. I am talking about, yes you may have guessed it the “BIBLE”. Now wait! Before you stop reading any further, please just allow me this moment and I assure you, that you and every person of color who does not know this truth already and living it, will be blessed by it. We are of all people on the planet it seems the ones who are always having to fight to receive anything. We are constantly fighting in some arena, regarding some subject matter which is dear to us and should be. But the truth is, that could all change for us if we would consider what just one book in the BIBLE says: I believe, regarding us as a people. The book is: “The SONG OF SOLOMON.” The entire book is about a “BLACK WOMAN”(Original Text), a young girl, who is in love with a shepherd boy, and she is being sought after by King Solomon, said to be the wisest of all men “EVER!”, and who had many, many wives already. I found this book of all the books in the BIBLE to be especially inspiring to us as a people because it is the only one of its kind in the entire BIBLE. The writer Solomon himself, makes it very clear right away in the very first chapter 1, verse 5, that the young woman is “BLACK”, “Like the tents of Kedar.” Solomon in his beautifully, descriptive, verses, goes on and on, poetically, about how this black woman is the most beautiful of all women. And he should know because he was an expert, with the thousands of wives he had. When I was young I can remember a preacher in a church I attended, only once, say to the congregation, the book of Solomon was not appropriate reading for those of his congregation, and at the time I did not think much about it. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the real reason he did not want his all white congregation to read it. It was because it was very descriptive regarding all aspects of beauty, love, desire, and faithfulness etc, and the references were being made to this most beautiful of women! My point finally, is this: If king Solomon said it and it was put into the most important book on the planet, ALMIGHTY GOD’s BOOK , “THE BIBLE”, then we as a people and black women in particular, should be first and foremost in thinking of themselves as beautiful, and second to non. With GODLY humility of course. Read the entire book and tell me it does not give you and us all a reason to walk with our heads held high. I would lastly like to add that I am by no means trying to belittle anyone who is not a person of color. I am only trying to give us, who have been told over again, and again through many different ways, that the standard of beauty, and acceptance, with regards to this world’s consideration, is something other than what we look like, the opportunity to realize that we have the stamp of approval from GOD ALMIGHTY himself, as our source of reference, if anyone else thinks they have a reason to let their hair blow in the wind. End of discussion! Many blessings, James Ellis Martin

  22. Wow! I was not at all expecting that to happen. I just wrote a very appropriate but a bit lengthy, contribution regarding the book of Solomon showing that black women in particular have all the reason in the world, ballerina or otherwise, to hold their heads up very high because, of what King Solomon, considered to be the wisest of all men “EVER”, said concerning the most beautiful of all women, and he would be an expert, having had thousands of wives to be able to make that determination. The entire book is about a young woman, clearly described as black, (original text) chapter 1, verse 5, and the most beautiful of all, whom he happened to be seeking for himself, but she expressed her faithfulness and love for a shepherd boy. Perhaps my article was too much truth for someone out there, and the fact that it is written in the most important book on the planet, “THE BIBLE” makes it just unpalatable for some who do not want it to be known. Too bad I know it and many others do as well. And the numbers are growing everyday and it is truly making a difference. So it is ok if you remove what I wrote and not print it, saying “duplicate comment detected.” I have never written anything, comment or otherwise here before, and even if I had or someone wrote something similar, why is the truth so hard for, whoever you are to handle? Is this not what Ms. Howard referred to in her article, that there can not be more than one of the same, at the same time, when it comes us. You can hide and block the truth for a while but you can never ever kill it completely.

  23. And my comment does not need moderation as you infer because it is not at all extreme any more then GOD’s word is extreme! Why not just be honest about it and admit that you want to remove it all together not because it needs anything done to it but rather because it is the truth and inspiring to those for whom it was meant, for those who need to know it. If I am wrong it my assessment, prove it. Leave it as it is and post it that way.

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