The number one recommended book on ballerinas for Black girls has always been, “Dancing in the Wings” since my earliest years as a bookseller. It features a beautiful Black girl on her tip toe in the classical demi-pointe position with head held high, and arms in the air with a white tutu. It was the first book of its kind to feature a Black girl as a ballerina, and was released in 2003. It was written by dancer, actor, singer, choreographer, producer, director Debbie Allen. I was delighted to find that the book title is the same as one of her “Fame” TV series episodes she did from 1984-1987. She also composed and sang the title song. Allen’s personal story mirrors some of the issues discussed in the series and in the book. She was rejected as a ballerina supposedly due to body type, but later to find it was actually racism in disguise. The books curated for this post cover Janet Collins, the very first ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, to today’s Misty Copeland.
Eurocentric beauty standards and racism prevented many black dancers from their dream to become ballerinas as this was and still is to a large extent being practiced. The very first Black female ballerina named Janet Collins was also denied access as described in the book, “Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins,” by Michelle Meadows. Collins mesmerized audiences with her exquisite style and grace. There is footage of her in a 1949 video called, “After the Mardi Gras.” She is in her element as a performer. The book describes a time when dance schools “turned Black students away,” and how she became a prima ballerina in 1951. The other children’s book that mentions Janet Collins is called, “A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream.”
When Whoopi Goldberg started her 5 book series called, “Sugar Plum Ballerina” in 2008, parents eagerly purchased them to inspire their middle school daughters. Her video promotes the work in a book trailer released after the books were released. Whoopi said “ballerinas of color” were not seen alot, if at all. She discussed that when children deem something as being ok, then they’ll be drawn to it.
Eleven year old Charlotte Nebres made history in 2017 when she landed the role as Marie in the Nutcracker Suite with the NYC Ballet. The Nutcracker Suite has been performed since 1954 and Marie had never been played by a Black female. In October 2021, Charlotte will release a book called, “Charlotte and the Nutcracker: The True Story of a Girl Who Made Ballet History.” Charlotte said in a recent interview that it was hard for her to believe that she was the first because it should have happened already.
Michaela dePrince has a tear jerking story of her childhood. In Sierra Leone her father was killed by rebels and her mother died from disease. She ended up being pushed into an orphanage where she was mistreated as a “devil’s child.” The orphanage administration’s backwards logic decided that no one would adopt her because of the spots on her skin better known as vitiligo. It seems a miracle that through her pain she would manage to eke out a dream of being a ballerina after her best friend shared a picture of one on a magazine cover. The resilience of this woman is superhuman.
The most widely known prima ballerina to date is Misty Copeland. In 2015, she became the American Ballet Company’s first primary African American dancer in their 75 year history, and has 4 books she’s written which include: “Bunheads” and “Firebird” as her children’s titles. Firebird is also the name of one of a 2012 ballet concert she starred in that received rave reviews. In 2009, she was asked by Prince to perform in his “Crimson and Clover” music video. She is quite special as her first teacher, Cindy Bradley said in a 60 minutes interview, in Misty she could see that she was going to be “one of the greats.”
It is exciting to see that Misty has a new adult book coming out in November of 2021 called, “Black Ballerinas, My Journey to our Legacy.” The cover lists the names of ballerinas who inspired her along her journey. She starts in the early 20th century and spans up to today. I’m including the book in this post because of its broad scope in hopes that it will direct the parents of Black ballerinas to share the names therein to their daughters to do additional research on.
With trailblazers like Misty who honor our past in order to ensure a better tomorrow, our future shines bright.
Find it hard to choose? My recommendation is to start with the classic "Dancing in the Wings" by Debbie Allen. Then move to Misty Copeland's "Firebird" since Misty will likely be recognized from being in the news media to make an instant connection with your child. From there, as they grow older, Whoopi's Sugar Plum Ballerina middle school chapter books will be an interesting group to delve into.
As always, I appreciate that you have read through this blog post. I hope that you’ve become curious to seek out more books about black ballerinas. We ask that you consider purchasing your books from our Black owned business, Afriware Books, Co. If there is a title you’d like to purchase that is not mentioned here, or could not be found on the website, feel free to email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dancing in the Wings TV show with Debbie Allen
Youtube Video with Whoopi Goldberg promoting Prima Ballerina Books
Meet The First Black Star Of New York City Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker
60 minutes interview with Misty Copeland
Prince Crimson and Clover video featuring Misty Copeland