In the Face of Prejudice, the ‘Black Swans’ Took the Ballet World by Storm

A new book shows how pioneering ballerinas captivated audiences and broke racial barriers

ballerinas perform onstage in white dresses
Karlya Shelton, front and center, with the swans, performing George Balanchine's choreography for a Tchaikovsky serenade in 1979. © Jack Vartoogian / Front Row Photos

Lydia Abarca’s ballet career was forewritten in her body and her posture from early childhood, when she seemed to hover above everyone else on an invisible string. Accepted into the elite Juilliard School in 1961 at age 10, she spent four years there, the lone Black girl surrounded by affluent white girls. At the time, many ballet companies rejected Black dancers altogether. By age 15, Abarca would recall, “I’d become convinced that for a Black girl, ballet was an impossible climb straight to a dead end.”

Yet Abarca managed a breakthrough after she became a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, a pioneering Black ballet company conceived in 1969 by the Harlem-born dancer Arthur Mitchell, who’d served as the first Black principal dancer in the New York City Ballet.

Though Mitchell was a world-class instructor, he could also be exacting, even cruel. Yet his mentoring launched the careers of young Black women who built international reputations—and who clung to each other for friendship and support. Abarca soon started racking up firsts of her own: She was the first Black ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine (in 1975) and became the first Black prima ballerina to be part of a major ballet company.

a layout from Dance magazine of a ballerina dancer with a pink overlay design
Lydia Abarca in a 1975 portrait in Dance magazine.  Photograph: Kenn Duncan; Dance Magazine, May 1975; Reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine
Now, a new book by author Karen Valby—The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, 50 Years of Sisterhood and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History—offers a loving tribute to Abarca’s storied career, and to those of the other founding members of the Dance Theater of Harlem: Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells. At the peak of their careers, Abarca and her fellow dancers entertained Queen Elizabeth II; became the first American ballet company to perform in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union; and held shows in South Africa in 1992 to celebrate the end of apartheid. As Valby notes, these five ballerinas’ lives were caught between “thunderous applause and the damp hush of obscurity.” And she argues that today, when Black ballerinas still “endure a tradition sick with racism and bias,” there’s much to celebrate in the stories of these pivotal figures.

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This article is a selection from the April/May 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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