Diversity in Ballet – Famous African American Dancers

Raven Wilkinson

Raven Wilkinson (February 2, 1935 – December 17, 2018) was one of the first African American ballet dancers hired to dance in a ballet company, Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1955. She eventually left the company after two years because of racial discrimination. She then danced with the Dutch National Ballet.

Arthur Mitchell

Aurthur Mitchell (March 27, 1934 – September 19, 2018) was another first to be hired by a well known ballet company in 1955 by the New York City Ballet. He was later promoted to principal dancer. In 1969 he co founded the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Janet Collins

Janet Collins (March 7, 1917 – May 28, 2003) studied ballet from a young age and auditioned for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1932 when she was a teen. When she was told she would need to lighten her skin to be accepted she declined. In 1948 she moved to New York City where she danced on Broadway and then became the first African America ballerina to perform at the Metrolpolitan Opera.

Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade (born March 6, 1931) followed in the footsteps of her cousin, Janet Collins, and moved to New York in 1949. She also danced on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Television and Film roles followed in the late 50s. She eventually became a professor at Yale and returned to the Metropolitan Opera as a choreographer in the early 90s.

Desmond Richardson

Desmond Richardson (born December 15, 1969) was the principal dancer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 1987-1994. After leaving the Ailey Company was a principal with Frankfurt Ballet in Germany. Richardson has also performed as a guest artist with the Swedish Opera Ballet, the Washington Ballet, Teatro at La Scala, and the San Francisco Ballet. In 1996, he became the first African American principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. Since then he has danced on Broadway, television and film.

Debra Austin

Debra Austin (born July 25, 1955)  was promoted to the rank of principal dancer at Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982. She the first African-American female principal dancer of a major American ballet company. She was also the first African-American female dancer at the New York City Ballet. Currently she is the ballet mistress for the Carolina Ballet.

Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson (born February 19, 1965) joined the Houston Ballet in 1983 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1990. She was the second African-American female principal dancer at a major American ballet company, and the first at the Houston Ballet.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland (born September 10, 1982) became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in 2015 at the American Ballet Theatre. She became a member of ABT’s Studio Company in 2000, its corps de ballet in 2001 and eventually an ABT soloist in 2007. For many years she was the only African American dancer at ABT. Misty Copeland has become very well known as a dancer and has performed on Broadway and in television and film. She has also used her celebrity to educate people on diversity in ballet through public speaking and books.