Misty Copeland pays tribute in this video clip to Historic Heroine Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American classical ballet dancer in a major classical ballet company.
Wilkinson joined the acclaimed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955. She had been told that she wouldn’t make it into the company, but after several auditions, she was accepted. She advanced quickly through the ranks becoming a soloist in her second season. However, she faced major roadblocks in her career due to racism.
When on tour in the south, she took pains to hide her racial identity and wore white makeup to blend in with the rest of the company. Due to Jim Crow laws, she lodged in segregated hotels, and if her company feared for her safety, she was prohibited from dancing in certain cities and towns. In 2014, Wilkinson told Point Magazine, “I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but I also never wanted to deny what I 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.”
Eventually, she was told she had made it as far as she would go in ballet, so she left the company seeking more opportunities to dance. She didn’t find any in the U.S. Feeling stymied, she turned her attention to teaching and giving lectures, but she missed dancing. She slid back into her ballet slippers in 1967 to dance for the Holland National Ballet. In 1974, she returned to the United States and appeared on Broadway
Despite her successes and lauded career, Wilkinson’s said in her 2014 interview with Point Magazine in reference to diversity in ballet, “When are we going to get a swan queen of a darker hue? How long can we deny people that position? Do we feel aesthetically we can’t face it?”
Wilkinson’s persistence and determination inspired many black ballerinas including Misty Copeland, who performed Black Swan in 2015.