You've probably heard of Misty Copeland and her recent promotion to principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre -- the first African American woman to hold that title. You may even have heard of Michaela DePrince, the young woman born in Sierra Leone and now breaking down barriers in the American ballet.
Long before they graced the stage, though, there was Raven Wilkinson.
Raven Wilkinson grew up in Harlem, in a house directly across the street from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. That is where she first fell in love with dance. Her mother, who had studied ballet herself, encouraged her young daughter's burgeoning passion. Raven's talent was evident from an early age. She started lessons at the age of five, and on her ninth birthday her uncle's generous gift was for lessons at the esteemed Ballet Russe School, led by Bolshoi dancers Maria and Vecheslav Swoboda.
In 1955, at the tender age of 20, she signed a contract to dance full time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and in doing so became the first African American dancer for a major classical ballet company.
As you might imagine, life as an African American dancer in the 1950s was not easy. As talented as she was on stage, it was the political and racial climate off stage where she showed her true character. While traveling with the troupe, she was encouraged to hide her race while staying in Whites Only hotels in the South. Raven refused to out-right deny her race, but agreed not volunteer that information unless asked directly.
"I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but also never wanted to deny what I was. If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, 'No, I’m not black.'"In 1957, she was kicked out of a hotel in Atlanta because she refused to lie to the manager when he questioned her about her race. She was sent to stay in a "colored" hotel. Later during that tour, when the troupe arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, where the infamous Bus Boycott sparked by Rosa Parks had ended just a few months earlier, their bus was met by the Ku Klux Klan, who was looking for her.
While her troupe tried to protect her the best they could, they could not afford to avoid touring altogether. In many cases, she was barred from dancing in certain locations, and would be sent alone to a safer town to wait for the troupe to catch up.
In 1974, homesick and tired, she retired from ballet and returned to the United States. Fortunately, her retirement was short-lived, and she was invited to dance with the New York Opera, where she danced until 1985, and remained as a character dancer and actor until 2011 when the company disbanded.
(photo source: Wall Street Journal)
But Raven Wilkinson was far more than simply a dancer. She was a trailblazer and role model for so many young dancers through the ages, including the amazing Misty Copeland, whose children's book The Firebird was inspired by Raven Wilkinson.
"Meeting Raven Wilkinson and having her as a mentor, it was that kind of support from the generations that came before me that helped to lift me up and give me the confidence to then be able to give back and bring other minorities with me on this journey."This is why it's so very important to tell these stories again and again -- so they can reach a wider audience. I know there are countless little brown and black girls out there wearing tutus and practicing their plies, inspired by Misty Copeland, just as she'd been inspired by Raven Wilkinson.
Happy birthday Ms. Wilkinson. And thank you for your bravery and for sharing your talent with us.
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