Misty Copeland made history when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. She was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2015 and has inspired many young African-American girls, thus becoming a cultural icon.
But even icons have trailblazers.
Raven Wilkinson is the first African-American woman to receive a contract to dance full-time with a major ballet company – the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City in 1955.
Wilkinson’s love of ballet started at the age of five and by age nine, she was taking ballet lessons from well-known Russian dancers. She left school to pursue ballet full-time and auditioned for the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Wilkinson was rejected twice before being accepted on the third try on a six-week trial basis.
Being accepted came at a heavy price. Because the Ballet Russe performed in locations throughout the South, Wilkinson (who is light skinned) was told to keep her race a secret. She even wore white make-up on stage to conceal her identity. Wilkinson told Pointe Magazine that she didn’t want to put the company in danger, but didn’t want to deny who she was.
“If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not black.’ Some of the other dancers suggested that I say I was Spanish. But that’s like telling the world there’s something wrong with what you are.”
Then, she had a run in with the Ku Klux Klan. She told Pointe Magazine that in Montgomery, Alabama, the tour bus rolled into town, and everyone was running around with white robes and hoods on.
“They stopped traffic, there were so many of them. There was a rapping sound on the bus door, and this man jumped on in his hood and gown. Several big strapping male company dancers got up and moved toward him.”
Later on she and the other dancers went to the hotel dining room for dinner and she saw many lovely couples and families with little children.
“I pulled out my chair, I realized that they all had Ku Klux Klan robes on the seats next to them. I remember thinking, here are people who can be so cruel and ugly, and yet they’re so loving toward their own families,” Wilkinson told Pointe Magazine. “In a way it made me less frightened of them. They lost some of their power in my eyes.”
Eventually, Ballet Russe’s director told her that she couldn’t perform in certain cities to ensure her safety. In 1961, Wilkinson left Ballet Russe and was never hired by another American ballet company again. Five years later, she moved overseas to perform as a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet and stayed for seven years.
“You haven’t exhausted the life you had. You worked hard. You have to fight for it,” she told Dance Magazine.
She finally returned to the United States in 1973 and performed with the New York City Opera as a dancer and actress. She continued there until 2011, when the Opera folded. Although she’s happy about the progression Black people have made in dance, she knows there much more to be done. She expounded on her thoughts about diversity in Pointe Magazine.
“My never-ending question is: When are we going to get a Swan Queen of a darker hue?” she questioned. “How long can we deny people that position? Do we feel aesthetically we can’t face it? I think until we start seeing it regularly, we’ll never believe it. But I’m sure that won’t take another 60 years to happen.”