There is a lack of diversity in many fields and vocations that have been highlighted in recent times. After slavery had ended, there were many preconceived notions about what Black people could and could not do for a living and for recreation. Ballet was one of them.
It wasn’t until 1952 that Janet Collins was the first Black ballerina to be promoted to Prima Ballerina status at the Metropolitan Opera.
Raven Wilkinson was the first Black ballet dancer who toured with the famous Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo company in 1955.
The Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo company toured around the United States; Raven was encouraged to wear lighter make-up but she never hid her race. Raven left the company after receiving numerous threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
After moving to The Netherlands, Raven became a member of the Dutch National Ballet.
In 1969, Virginia Johnson co-founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem with Arthur Mitchell as a Prima Ballerina, and in 2009 as a Company Director.
In an interview with Misty Copeland, Virginia spoke of how during the 70s they were invited to perform at Sadlers Wells in London. The tickets sold out and they were invited to perform again a week later.
The artistic director Arthur Mitchell decided that everyone hand dyed their tights and pointe shoes to match their skin tones for the second performance to show the world “who we are”.
Arthur Mitchell felt compelled to open the Dance Theatre of Harlem as he wanted to form a top-notch ballet theatre that would shatter the myth that black bodies “were not right” for ballet.
It started in a garage and they left the doors open to attract young people from the street.
To entice the boys there, Mitchell compared ballet to basketball, hired drummers instead of pianists to accompany the class, and allowed them to wear jeans. Within four months, the Dance Theatre of Harlem school had 800 students.
Lauren Anderson was nine years old when she was taken to the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and couldn’t believe there was a whole company of Black and brown dancers that looked like her.
Lauren was the first Black principal dancer at the Houston Ballet in 1990, and when she saw she was cast as ‘Alice’ in Alice in Wonderland, she thought that it was a mistake.
“He looked at me like I was crazy when I told him Alice was white”, her teacher responded That the only colour in art is on a canvas”
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