March is National Women’s History Month. A quick Google search leads me to the National Women’s History Project. Each year they select a theme to help “write women back into history”. This year’s theme is all about intertwining women’s stories back into the fabric of our national history. Taking the personal achievements of a few and integrating them into the overall journey of women through time.
The world of ballet often receives a lot of criticism for using a classical archetype to set the standard for the aesthetic of theatrical beauty. This is not without some legitimate debate. However, so many things have happened in the world of ballet that have pushed the envelope forward. The most prominent leap forward in this direction recently has been the wide publicity ABT soloist Misty Copeland has achieved as a push back against the classical image of what a ballerina is. I have been lucky enough to been in class with Misty while taking class at Steps on Broadway. In my very limited opinion I do believe that physiologically, Misty is one of the most outstanding dancers in the world today. To be sure, I can’t wait to see what more she can contribute to the world of dance.
However, what we always seem to forget is that although she is the first African American soloist in the history of American Ballet Theatre, she is not the first black ballerina. In fact, she is not the first black ballerina with a major company. Too often I think we overlook the achievements others have made historically that have made our own opportunities possible. I would challenge any lover of dance to dig a little bit deeper into the history of ballet to see the wide variety that has already existed, not only in terms of race, but also in terms of body type and age. To help out with that I would like to present a few quick places to begin.
Remember Zoe Saldana’s role in Center Stage? Few people can name the outstanding beauty that played her body double. The young woman’s name is Aesha Ash. Ash joined SAB at thirteen and became the only black member of the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet. After her time there, Ash made the jump across the pond to Switzerland were she became a soloist with Béjart Ballet Lausanne. In 2005, Ash joined Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet as a soloist.
Who could forget the infamous Lauren Anderson? In 1990, Anderson became the first black ballerina to be given the title of principal dancer with a major ballet company, Houston Ballet. My favorite fact about her is that not only did she push the envelope by being a dark skinned woman in pointe shoes, but physiologically she rocked an extremely athletic build. Nowadays, we value athletic dancers for their technical ability, but before Anderson, dancers with the title of principle generally fell into the waif, pale, long-leggy category. Her feet were not the perfect banana shape we had previously been accustomed to and her leg line was not the overly hyperextended shape that so many people pray for. Yet her undeniable technique and solid performance quality allowed her to rise to the top of her game.
Another ballerina who doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as I believe she should is the power house Alicia Alonoso. Cuban born and raised, Alonoso is responsible not only for causing ballet hysteria in her county but also creating and codifying a technique that was based off of the Russian method and adopting that technique for a different body type. The school and company she founded in 1948 became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and created phonemes the likes of Carlos Acosta and Rosario “Charin” Suarez. Perhaps most amazing fact about Alonso is that she danced the lead role of Giselle well into her 80’s, decades after a eye condition left her blind in one eye.
In 1955, Raven Wilkinson became the only black ballerina to dance with the Ballet Russe. Under the strain of racial segregation, Wilkinson was prohibited from performing on certain stages, and for staying in hotels with her white co-stars. Eventually while being on tour in Atlanta, GA a hotel concierge asked the fair skinned Wilkinson outright if she was black. Upon replying yes Raven was prohibited from performing onstage in that city. Unfortunately, due to the nature of racially charged political times, Wilkinson was forced to leave the company and the country. She moved to Holland where she danced as a member of the Holland National Ballet and did not return to the United states for over a decade.
Though it may be classical, the world of ballet is not as dead as we sometimes think. The only way progress can really die is when we ignore and allow ourselves to forget the achievements of an outstanding few. These glorious women are only the tip of a very deep iceberg. None of the ladies I mentioned above set out to prove a point or to change the world. All they did was work hard at doing what the loved and did well. At the very heart of all these women is a die-hard dancer. And they each deserve to be remembered for pushing their art form forward—while wearing tutus.
Freelance Dancer, Writer
Photo: Dancer Alicia Williams