7 Iconic Black Women Who Changed The Course Of Ballet History

Just three years ago, Misty Copeland made ballet history when she became the first Black woman to ever be promoted to principal in American Ballet Theater. It was a groundbreaking moment for the company, which is considered the crème de la crème of the ballet world, and for Black dancers everywhere. Now, Copeland is a household name, with an Under Armour endorsement and a Barbie made in her likeness.

But to understand why Copeland's rise to fame is so significant, it's important to acknowledge the classical dancers who broke into the historically whitewashed art form long before her. In honor of Black History Month, here are the some of the other Black dancers who set the stage for Copeland's success.

It's Black History Month, but at Refinery29, we believe in celebrating Black voices, Black art, and Black women 365 days of the year. Follow us on Instagram at @r29unbothered for more on issues that affect Black women's everyday lives.

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Katherine Dunham

Dunham never dreamed of having a career in dance, so instead she pursued higher education and got her PhD in anthropology. While in school, she started the first self-supporting, all-Black dance troupe, which performed around Chicago in the 1930s. Dunham's work caught the eye of a philanthropist, who gave her a grant to spend two years in the Caribbean studying dance.

After this formative trip, Dunham created her own modern dance technique that combined Afro-Caribbean and African-American influences. Compared to the stark, European styles of dance that dominated this time period, Dunham's work honored her roots and introduced audiences to a new way of movement. A prolific author, Dunham once wrote about her work: "We weren't pushing 'Black is Beautiful,' we just showed it."
Photo: Hulton­Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images.
Pearl Primus

Born in Trinidad, Primus moved to New York City and joined the dance company New Dance Group in 1943. Her performances often touched on social and political events at the time, and the company's motto was: "Dance is a weapon." In 1948, Primus traveled to west and central Africa to study native dances, and was inspired to get her PhD in African and Caribbean studies. Primus choreographed several works for Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, and traveled around the world performing. Her most famous solo, Strange Fruit, was an abstract modern dance meant to depict a white woman witnessing a lynching. "I dance not to entertain, but to help people to better understand each other," she once said.
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Janet Collins

When Collins was just 15 years old, she auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and was told by the director that she could join the company only "if you paint your face and body white." Collins turned down the job, but later went on to perform lead roles on Broadway in Cole Porter musicals. Then in 1951, after spending a year in the corps de ballet, Collins made history as the first and only Black dancer to be promoted to "prima ballerina" status in the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.
Carmen de Lavallade

Growing up in Los Angeles, de Lavallade got her start dancing with Lester Horton Dance Theater, the renowned modern dance company where Alvin Ailey also trained. De Lavallade was a true triple-threat who had an illustrious career in all corners of the performing arts world: She starred in Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, and danced lead roles with the Metropolitan Opera, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and the American Ballet Theater. Today, de Lavallade still choreographs and teaches, and last year, de Lavallade received a Kennedy Center Honor.

But perhaps de Lavallade's most noteworthy works are the solos and duets she choreographed and danced with her late partner and husband, Geoffrey Holder.
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Raven Wilkinson

In 1955, Wilkinson became the first Black ballerina to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. But when Wilkinson began touring, particularly through the racially segregated South, she worried that her race would put the company in danger. Wilkinson was encouraged by directors to wear white makeup and keep quiet about her race — or lie and say she was Spanish. Once, in Montgomery, AL, a Klu Klux Klan member stormed the company's tour bus looking for her. "Several big strapping male company dancers got up and moved toward him," she told Pointe Magazine in 2014. During the same trip, KKK members interrupted performances shouting profanities at Wilkinson while she danced.

Eventually, Wilkinson voluntarily left Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for the Dutch National Ballet. "It wasn't me running away from dance, though I did feel a little disappointment at the limitations that were placed on my career," she told Pointe Magazine. In 1973, she came back to New York City, where she performed with the New York City Opera until 2011.
Photo: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images.
Virginia Johnson

In 1969, Johnson left college to become a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first all-Black ballet company created by former New York City Ballet dancer, Arthur Mitchell. This was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and Johnson said that some people questioned her decision to "try to do the white man's art form." "Well, who is anybody aside from me to say what I should do with my life?" she said in an interview with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 2017. "I’m an individual. I have a dream, I should be able to pursue that dream." Today, Johnson is the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage.
Lauren Anderson

In 1990, Lauren Anderson became a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, making her one of the first Black dancers to climb the ranks at a major ballet company. Known for her athleticism and grace on stage, Anderson was definitely the "Misty Copeland" of her time. When Copeland made her debut in Swan Lake in 2017, Anderson joined her on stage during the curtain call and gave her a huge hug that swept her off her feet — the photo went viral.

"It's still a European art form and there are still people who think the corps de ballet needs to be like the Rockettes," Anderson told Pointe Magazine in 2017. "But things are changing, because more and more people are beige." Today, Anderson's pointe shoes are on display in the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
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