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Remembering Janet Collins

In the 1930’s, an African American woman named Janet Collins watched companies perform in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium and fell in love with the art. When she wanted to start dancing, ballet schools would not take her because she would take up space in the class, so she hired a private ballet tutor instead. When she was fifteen, she auditioned for the company team at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and received an offer - but was told she would have to perform in whiteface if she joined (Atlanta Ballet, 2018). In an article written in 2009, Gloria Ladson-Billings contended that “because it [racism] is so enmeshed in the fabric of our social order, it appears both normal and natural to people in this culture. … Thus the strategy becomes one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations”.

What we have to understand is that much of the racism present in the dance world is not direct; it is underlying. Sure, we see more African American ballerinas in ballet schools and more diversity in casting; however, the issues aren’t with ability, but rather opportunity - and a long history of systemic racism/lack of opportunity for African American ballerinas in the dance industry has left lasting impacts that we still see today. Janet Collins’ struggle didn’t end with her declined offer at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. While teachers and mentors praised her for her extraordinary technique and elegance, choreographers abstained from casting her due to her skin color not matching the other dancers, characters, costumes, etc; Collins did break some color barriers, however, as she became the first African American prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera. This marked the first time a Black artist had joined the permanent company (Atlanta Ballet, 2018). The lack of opportunities in the dance world due to skin color is an ongoing struggle. It wasn’t until 2019 that big dancewear companies started producing shoes to match African Americans’ skin color. Before that, dancers would have to “pancake” their shoes in makeup in between acts to make the shoes better match their skin tones. In addition, because ballet traditionally has their dancers wear pink tights, both in class and on stage, dancers with darker skin tones have a tougher time matching costumes and everyday dancewear. Despite Janet Collins’ successes in the dance world, she encountered enormous barriers due to her skin color. Many southern states at the time had laws against black dancers performing on certain stages, so Collins’ understudies often had to perform in her place. In addition, many people boycotted her ballet company as they found out they had taken a black woman over a white woman (Atlanta Ballet, 2018). These barriers demonstrated the hardship for African American ballerinas that despite the talent, technique, and motivation behind these dancers, they were still faced with a lack of opportunity. Racism is dance often comes in forms of microaggressions which create the barriers for dancers today. Although equality in dance has come a long way, there is still work to be done and paths to be paved for the ballerinas who lack opportunities. Janet Collins’ story has paved the path for equality for many dancers of minority status. She went on to become an accomplished teacher, mentor, choreographer, and dancer. She passed away in 2003, but we remember and honor her for her strength, talent, and accomplishments.


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