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Black ballet dancers


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We've had several discussions on racism in ballet, and the fact that African Americans are not well-represented in American ballet. There have been, however, quite a few excellent black dancers who HAVE had good careers. Although I hate to lump dancers of any ethnic group into a thread, because these are dancers that are good because they're good, not for any other reason, I thought it might be interesting to come up with a list.

Off the top of my head (and I know I'm forgetting some people) -- and ballet only -- In DTH: Lydia Abarca, one of the most lusciously elegant dancers I've ever seen; Eddie J. Shellman (I always thought it a shame he didn't dance Spartacus) and Ronald Perry, two of the finest men dancing in the 1980s and early '90s, in my book. Christine Johnson, one of the few truly classical American ballerinas I've ever seen, and I still want to know what happened to her. Alica Graf, who, in the roles that Arthur Mitchell cast her (I missed him, alas) was superb (and I hope to see her again). Lorraine Graves, a giantess (and wonderful Myrtha).

Christopher Boatwright, of Stuttgart and later San Francisco Ballet.

Debra Austin of New York City Ballet -- one of the best jumpers I've ever seen. She created a solo in "Ballo della Regina."

I'll think of more later. Anyone else?

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i'll always remember stephanie dabney and her wonderful firebird. simply wonderful.

there are two wonderful up and coming dancers that i have seen recently. one is

eric underwood who is in the corps of pacific northwest ballet (he shined recently in a new kevin o'day piece). he was memorable because he seemed to have so much more depth and interest on stage than any other male corps memeber. the other one is toni doctor who dances with atlanta ballet. she has an amazing combination of grace and glamour. you are almost reminded of a 1940's movie star when you watch her.

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I think black *male* dancers are being better represented in ballet than the women. Carlos Acosta for example, is an internationally known star. And from NBoC, we've had Kevin Pugh and now soloist Jhe Russell doing very well. But there are no black women even in the corps.

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NYCB probably has as higher percentage of black dancers than any other company, besides DTH. But it seems that while black male dancers in otherwise white companies are not rare, females are in short supply. I believe Aesha Ash is the only black female in NYCB. Besides Debra Austin, Cynthia Lochard, Myrna Kamara, and Andrea Long also danced with the company, but rarely have there been two black females in the ensemble at the same time, and no soloists or principals. Interesting that in opera, the reverse seems to be the rule - there are numerous black divas singing major roles all over the world, but black men in opera are almost non-existent, although there are many acclaimed as concert singers.

Skin color seems to be a factor as well. It's easier for lighter-skinned dancers to blend into the ensemble, and there may well be black dancers in companies who are not identified as such by the audience. (Gary Chryst who danced with the Joffrey Ballet for many years comes to mind.) There are also probably light-skinned dancers who are "passing" for white - a friend of mine who had a good career here and abroad did this.

During the twenties and thirties, many black Americans went to Russia at the behest of the Communists. One of them, a dancer named Scott, had a daughter who was a soloist with the Bolshoi, Marjorie (Yulamei) Scott. I believe she teaches at the school these days.

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And during the 70s, the Joffrey had Sara Yarborough and Rachel Ganteaume, not to mention Christian Holder, a Joffreyite from the first post-Harkness season.

Now my question: Does anyone recall the name of the former NYCB dancer who was discovered several years ago in a NYC hospital? His social worker was able to verify that he had been in the company and had danced in the original production of "Illuminations". He became a sort of "poster old boy" for the Dancers' Relief Fund. He was placed successfully in a retirement home and is still, to the best of my knowledge, alive.

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i don't know if this is permitted, please fix if it isn't, but it has the information.

i looked for a way to email it to you but couldn't find one.

it was dated 1998


NEW YORK (AP) -- Arthur Bell, a 71-year-old man, was found homeless and disoriented on a Brooklyn street last month, barely standing, his feet frozen. He told paramedics that he was once a ballet dancer in Paris.

``And they went, `Yeah, yeah, yeah,''' recalled social worker Maria Mackin.

Bell's medical chart, after all, noted possible signs of dementia.

But during the days that followed, Bell would tell Ms. Mackin tales of

Paris and London, Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, Olga Preobrajenskaya,

Katherine Dunham and James Baldwin.

``He started telling me things that only someone who was really in the dance world would know. And I thought, `This is not dementia,''' said Ms. Mackin, who happened to have been a ballet photographer at one time. She also saw that Bell was ``incredibly graceful ... slender, sleek.''

The accuracy, the richness of detail and the clarity with which he spoke led her to the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Bell's story checked out. He had been a pioneering black ballet dancer. Though he was no star, he left his artistic mark on the 1940s and '50s, ``when there was no place for African-Americans in classical ballet,'' said Madeleine Nichols, curator of

the dance collection at the library.

Bell worked odd jobs after his dance career ended, but can't remember how he wound up on the street, where he had been living for months in the dead of winter. His last address was a men's shelter. He would have been sent back there had Ms. Mackin not intervened.

Now he's in a nursing home, recuperating from frostbite on his feet and legs. Slowly, he's learning to walk again with a cane. He uses a wheelchair most of the time.

``I convinced them that he needed a higher level of care,'' Ms. Mackin said. ``I said, `This is a guy who was a pioneer in the dance world. He's special, he's an important part of African-American culture. We should go out of our way to help him.'''

Before she became a social worker, Ms. Mackin was a photographer for Capezio, the dance shoe company. She took photos of dance greats such as Rudolf Nureyev and Bob Fosse.

When Bell was rescued off the street, ``the very first thing I asked was, `Do you have Medicare?''' Ms. Mackin recalled. ``And he said, `Oh, I'm not really sure. We didn't have to worry about these things when I lived in Paris and London, it's a different medical system.' And I thought, oh, this

is a very sophisticated man. That was an awakening from my usual clients.

``I asked, `What were you doing in Paris?'''

And his story began to unfold. ``I was absolutely thrilled,'' Ms. Mackin said. ``I thought, oh my God,this is incredible, if this is true. And I really believed it was true and that the world had let this man slip through the cracks.''

Bell speaks of dance with a lucid passion that awakens his frail, 5-foot-11 body. Sitting in a wrinkled bathrobe, he arches his long neck and uses his long fingers to punctuate his remarks with lively elegance. The muscles in his legs are still sculptured.

The eldest of a Florida preacher's nine children, Bell finished high school and got on a bus to New York. He quickly found a job in the garment district and started taking dance classes with Dunham.

He moved to Paris in the early '50s, where he said he lived in the same rooming house as Baldwin, the writer. He danced with the Ballets de la Tour Eiffel while studying with Preobrajenskaya, the retired Russian ballerina.

In 1950, Ashton, the great British choreographer, chose him as a guest soloist in the New York City Ballet's world premiere of ``Illuminations.''

Bell returned to New York in the '60s, forced to give up his career as he approached 40. His life slid away. Bell, who receives $400 a month in Social Security, is waiting for his Medicaid application to be processed and wants to move to ``somewhere where I could be near the theater most of the time.'' He also wants to establish a scholarship fund for struggling young minority dancers.

Not being able to dance anymore doesn't trouble him, he said, ``because when you love something, the love for it just goes beyond anything. Dancing is in my soul.''

Ms. Mackin and her husband visit Bell twice a week.

``It makes you think about the judgments you make -- like reading the chart,'' she said. ``We have to listen to what people say instead of reading charts.''

[ 07-07-2001: Message edited by: Mme. Hermine ]

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Edward Morgan danced with Joffrey in the 80s. Pierre Lockett joined Joffrey in the early 90s and is still with the company.

Tanya Wideman danced with Joffrey Ballet for one season in 1999.

Did I miss Virginia Johnson in this thread?

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And what about Janet Collins, ballerina of the old Metropolitan Opera Ballet? OK, so she did a lot of Aidas, but she also danced quite a few Hours in Gioconda and the Spanish dance in Traviata.

Did I miss Sylvester Campbell somewhere in here?

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PBS did a show on black dancers (!!!!) this season and there was some footage of Janet Collins, who had been just a name to me before. I thought she was beautiful -- very lyrical, gorgeous line and feet.

I didn't forget Virginia Johnson. I'm one of about three people in the Western world who didn't love her dancing. But she was an important dancer and anyone who did is free to rave about her :(

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There was a beautiful dancer named Elena Carter who danced with DTH before moving to Oregon and dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre. She was RAD trained and very pretty. She told me that had she not become pregnant, she would have shared the role of Giselle with Virginia Johnson. She now teaches in the OBT school.

Mel Tomlinson danced with DTH and later with NYCB. He had wonderful long legs and was very limber. I think he danced AGON pas with Heather Watts.

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I had no idea that Gary Chryst is black. I always thought he was hispanic. Whatever, he was a brilliant character dancer.

I remember Lydia Abarca fondly, and I'll never forget a spectacular Corsaire pdd she did with Paul Russell (who hasn't been mentioned here yet) at one of DTH's mid-Seventies seasons at the State Theater. She often reminded me of Suzanne Farrell.

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Eddie J. Shellman's career continues as a DTH Board member - and my teacher! Eddie has a school in Teaneck, NJ. His adult classes are wonderful and within the school there are a number of young, very talented and promising students.

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My daughter and I are huge fans of Aesha Ash and feel that more opportunities for her are long overdue.

We had a chance to chat with her briefly after a performance at SPAC. She is utterly charming, very humble and appreciative of compliments from fans. She is also exquisite. A beautiful dancer and a beautiful lady.

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Yes, I do remember her, Mme. Hermine, and I believe she was with Stuttgart before ABT. (And they paired her, with a black male dancer, in Chocolate in "The Nutcracker," which either shows extraordinary insensitivity or total obliviousness :) )

We're missing one Very Big Name in today's ballet world. I'm surprised. A man, dancing in New York......many of you mention him frequently as "why doesn't he dance more???"

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