Celebrating Black Women Raven Wilkinson first African-American ballerina of a major ballet company Documentary

Raven Wilkinson (the first African-American ballerina to become a member of a major ballet company

The Studio Museum was honored to recently host Intersections: Conversations on Art and Culture with Misty Copeland (an African-American soloist with the American Ballet Company), Raven Wilkinson (the first African-American ballerina to become a member of a major ballet company), and Brenda Dixon Gottschild (writer, former dancer, and Professor Emerita at Temple University).  Here, Professor Dixon Gottschild shares her thoughts on the evening.


Black Ballerina

What does it mean for a black dancer to want to do ballet? Is this a defection from blackness, a giving in to the dominant powers? Only if we fail to understand that blacks have every right to do ballet, as whites have every right to boogie on down. On March 12, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, some of the issues arising around blacks–particularly black women–in ballet were aired by ballerinas Raven Wilkinson and Misty Copeland, with yours truly as the moderator and sometime participant. The Studio Museum theater space was fully occupied. What I loved was the diversity of the crowd: black, white, and brown; professional dancers (Richard Garland of Dance Theater of Harlem; the legendary Louis Johnson, choreographer and former danseur); people from other walks of life (including stunningly gorgeous supermodel and human rights activist Alek Wek); old, not so old, and young turned out to hear 70-something Wilkinson and 20-something Copeland compare notes as they pondered the problems they confronted in their chosen field.

It was a lively conversation, with audience involved in the discussion for the final half hour. There is never enough time for a topic like this to be exhausted. What we hoped for was accomplished, at least in some small way: people couldn’t tear themselves away, and the discussion continued as audience members took their time in filtering out of the theater. The final question of the evening was a beautiful way to formally end the event. A lovely youngster who identified herself as a 13-year-old budding ballerina, about to enter the American Ballet Theater summer school of dance, asked Misty Copeland (the first black ballerina in ABT to be promoted to the position of Soloist in over two decades) how she should prepare for going into that session, knowing that she’d be perhaps the only black student in class. Copeland wisely told the teen that she shouldn’t worry about being black but just be concerned with doing her best. As much as possible, that is a lesson for all people of color to digest. Our victory is to keep our eyes on the prize and not be derailed by the double consciousness of being black in a white world.

Misty Copeland and Raven Wilkinson

Misty Copeland and Raven Wilkinson


Dance/USA, the national association for professional dance, recognized Raven Wilkinson, the 2015 Dance/USA Trustees Awardee, at the Dance/USA Annual Conference in Miami on June 17, 2015. Wilkinson, whose talent and skill enabled her to become the first ballerina of color with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955, is credited with being the first African American woman to dance for a major classical ballet company. The Dance/USA Trustees Award is given at the discretion of the Dance/USA Board of Trustees to recognize an outstanding professional whose work has special significance to the field. The video above is Raven’s acceptance of the award, presented by Misty Copeland, principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.
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