Dancing Through Life: 3 Black Ballerinas and Their Stories

Raven Wilkinson, African American ballerina

In 2015, Misty Copeland made history by being the first African American woman to ever become a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. While this news bodes well for the future of African American woman in dance, the brick Copeland laid was not the first one placed in the pavement; for decades Black woman have been fighting for their place on the stage. These three Black ballerinas have made history with their talent and their passion for their artform.

1. Raven Wilkinson

At 5-years old Raven Wilkinson attended a performance of Coppélia. Enamored, she began taking lessons a few years later. Though it worried her friends, Wilkinson auditioned for the Ballet Russe. She was accepted but was warned against letting the public know that she was black. Wilkinson’s light skin made this possible, although she refused to deny her race when asked. They even went so far as giving Wilkinson light makeup to wear onstage.

When told that there was little chance of her progressing further in dance, Wilkinson left the company. After a several-year hiatus, Wilkinson realized that her talent should not be allowed to go to waste. Upon invitation, she danced for the New York City Opera and even performed in Broadway musicals. At the age of 83, Raven Wilkinson passed away, leaving behind an inspiring legacy.

2. Debra Austin

When she was only 9-years old, Debra Austin was told by a Rockette that she lacked talent – she was wrong. Three years later, Austin was accepted to the School of American Ballet on full scholarship. When she was sixteen, choreographer George Balanchine cherry-picked her to join the New York City Ballet.

Austin eventually left the company to dance for the Zurich Ballet in Switzerland. She toured with the Company and performed in London, England and Italy. When she returned to the states, Austin was invited by the Pennsylvania Ballet to perform as a principle dancer. Under several revered choreographers, Austin performed in a number of contemporary ballets. In 1990 Austin retired, and today teaches ballet to the next generation of dancers.

3. Michaela DePrince

If there was a real-life Cinderella, is would be Michaela DePrince. Her perseverance and triumph through hardship is a story worth telling. DePrince was born in Sierra Leone amidst a civil war. Her father was killed, and soon thereafter DePrince lost her mother to sickness. DePrince was left at an orphanage by her uncle where she was abused by her caretakers.

Eventually a family adopted DePrince, and she gained ten siblings. Her new parents quickly discovered her talent at Ballet and enrolled her in classes. Although an exceptional dancer, DePrince was not given traditionally feminine roles in school do to her looking “too athletic” – despite her build being no different than that of her white classmates. Still, DePrince refused to take no for an answer. She excelled, and is now a soloist at Dutch National Ballet.