Lightly brushing the floorboards on tiptoe and gracefully flying like a gazelle across an open plain, ballerinas have captured the imagination and emotion of many young girls (and even boys) for hundreds of years. Ballet is a dance that brings all that is beautiful to the stage and tells stories simply through the music, costumes and movement of bodies. It is a communication that can be understood by any country, culture or person in the world.
Though this dance has mainly been dominated by people of Caucasian and European backgrounds, over the past century, African American ballerinas have risen up to become the most legendary dancers in the art. We celebrate African American ballerinas who have captured the hearts and imaginations of many around the world.
Raven Wilkinson was a pioneer in leading the way for African American ballerinas. Her first introduction to the ballet was at the age of 5 when she saw the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform Coppelia. In an interview with Pointe Magazine, Raven stated she was “so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights…that I started crying.” At the age of 9, she began to study with Maria Swoboda and said she was “thrilled” by ballet. During her summer vacations spent on the beach in Saybrook, Connecticut, you could see a black-haired little Raven dancing across the sandbars.
The Swoboda school was purchased eventually by Ballet Russe. It took Raven four auditions before she was finally accepted in the company, due to the encouragement of Frederic Franklin, who himself was a dancer. Unfortunately, though she was an exceptional talent, being an African American became a hindrance to her performing in the southern states which were rife with racial tensions at the time. She was even asked to perform using white make-up and was denied a room in an Atlanta, GA hotel. After years of performing with the company, she was told that she couldn’t go further in her career and should start an African dance company. Dismayed by this attitude, she left the company.
Eventually, Raven ended up living in Holland and performed with the Holland National Ballet for 7 years. She didn’t return to the US until 1974. Just shortly after, at the age of almost 40, she was contacted by the New York City Opera and asked to perform in two upcoming operas. She continued to dance with the company until she was 50 years old and didn’t stop performing as an actress with them until 2011. Raven’s career is an inspiration to many women, of any color, who continue to struggle to overcome opposition to be a success.
Lauren Anderson was born in 1965 and began dancing at the age of 7 in the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. According to her own admission, she didn’t have the natural body of a ballerina. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle in 2006, she stated “I was muscular. I ate like a football player, and guess what? You eat like a football player, you look like a football player.” She was told that she didn’t have the body for a ballerina and that maybe with her strong and outgoing personality, she would be a natural for Broadway and musical theater.
Lauren ignored this advice and changed her diet and her exercise to Pilates which lengthened her muscles helping her to achieve the slim lines required to be a ballerina. She joined the Houston Ballet company in 1983 and worked hard to prove her talent.
Her drive and determination paid off when Lauren Anderson made history as the first African American ballerina to become a principal dancer for any major dance company in 1990. Her signature dance was Cleopatra (pictured above) which was created just for her by Ben Stevenson. It ultimately brought her international fame as she was recognized for her strength, agility, athleticism and grace. Ms. Anderson retired in 2006 and now offers her knowledge and skills as a part-time teacher.
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Photo credit: http://www.browngirlsdoballlet.com