Why Philadelphia Was an Early Hub For Black Ballerinas
When we're talking about the history of black dancers in ballet, three names typically pop up: Raven Wilkinson at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Janet Collins at New York's Metropolitan Opera and Arthur Mitchell at New York City Ballet.
But in the 1930s through 50s, there was a largely overlooked hot spot for black ballet dancers: Philadelphia. What was going on in that city that made it such an incubator? To answer that question, we caught up with Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet founder (and frequent Dance Magazine contributor) Theresa Ruth Howard, who yesterday released her latest project, a video series called And Still They Rose: The Legacy of Black Philadelphians in Ballet.
What was Philadelphia's relationship to race at that time?
"It was relatively racially progressive. As far back as 1935, Philadelphia's high schools were not completely segregated. The city at one point had the largest number of free black men in the union—it was a preferred location for black people coming up from the South."
How did black students there get into ballet?
"In Philadelphia, the arts were abundant, and a lot of artists became school teachers for extra work. They'd start extra curricular clubs for things like voice, drama—and ballet. That's where Joan Myers Brown and Delores Brown started dancing. Their gym teacher had been a member of the Littlefield Ballet Company, so they had access to high level training in school.
"Antony Tudor was invited by the Philadelphia Ballet Guild to teach there and in local studios. Joan Myers Brown was one of the first students to take class with him because her friend's aunt owned a studio, so she was allowed even though she was black. The guys wouldn't partner her in class, so Tudor partnered her.
"Black dancers couldn't go to white schools to train, but some of those teachers were happy to come to black studios or to train black students privately. There were two main studios for black dancers: Marion Cuyjet's and Sydney King's (they originally opened a school together, but their personalities were incompatible). Marion especially was determined to create the first black ballerina."
Where did these dancers perform?
"There were well-to-do black doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs in Philadelphia, and every year they'd have a cotillion, and Sydney and Marion's ballet schools would put together a full-length story ballet for it. They had these huge sets provided by the freemasons; there was one year when Delores Brown entered on a horse! Judith Jamison did Giselle at the cotillion and that was her coming out. Billy Wilson choreographed a ballet for it called Blue Venus, and of course he later went on to Broadway and then Netherlands Dance Theater. There was a small circuit for black ballet in Philadelphia via churches or halls and this cotillion; that was the extent of the career that most of them could have being black as ballet dancers."
How did this compare to what was happening in the rest of the country?
"There were dancers training in other places. In DC, Mabel Freeman had a school, and Jones Haywood School was founded in 1941. But most of those dancers were diverted to other techniques to perform on Broadway or in nightclubs, not in ballet companies. But Donna Lowe danced for the Philadelphia Grand Opera Ballet for years while passing as white. If you even go further back, George Washington Smith who danced the first Giselle in America was rumored to be Mulatto—he was also from Philadelphia."
Why is this a story that needs to be told now?
"We're having conversations about diversity and inclusion and equity. But I don't know if people understand that this isn't a new topic. We've been talking about it since the 30s! I think you start to understand the frustration of someone who's 80 years old, and you tell them, 'Well, diversity takes time.' They've been watching it for decades. It's not just history; it's really these dancers' lives."
Howard will hold a live panel discussion at Philadelphia's The Painted Bride Center with Joan Myers Brown and Delores Brown on October 28.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Who are you when you no longer do what you've been doing for years?
It is the big question facing anyone who retires. For top ballet dancers, however, the situation is more extreme. They start young, grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly see only each other, and become more and more removed from ordinary life. So what is it like to give this all up?
I asked seven former principal dancers from different generations at San Francisco Ballet, including myself, about this challenge.
To be honest, we never tire of watching non-dancers tackle a day in the life of the pros. From athletes to average Joes, these videos always give us a good laugh, and they remind the rest of the world that a whole lot of work goes into every dance performance you see. But often times, these dancer-for-a-day videos don't fully understand the importance of training (i.e., you can't just throw on a pair of pointe shoes and give it a go).
That's why we're especially loving this video by Refinery29 that actually gets it. Lucie Fink, host of the R29 YouTube series Lucie For Hire , got a private lesson from American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, and it was endlessly entertaining.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.