April 30, 2024

The Swans of Harlem

By Karen Valby
Review by
Karen Valby’s spirited The Swans of Harlem brings the remarkable story of trailblazing Black ballerinas to center stage.
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In 2014, Misty Copeland became the first Black dancer to ever take the stage as Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The next year, she was promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, making her the first Black dancer to ever secure the role. She has been heralded as a prodigy and celebrated as a trailblazer. Yet in the first decade of her career, she was made to paint her face to look less like herself, less Black. White choreographers had long tried to steer her toward modern dance, where her skin color was more acceptable, and where she would not “break the line” of pale flesh. 

Today, large dance organizations boast diversity, equity and inclusion programming, and all dancers can finally find ballet tights and shoes that match their skin tone. Thanks to Copeland, other Black girls may not feel so alone in their unquenchable desire to dance classical ballet. 

But decades before Copeland took to the stage, as she frequently acknowledges, Black girls and women were performing to accolades all over the globe and in U.S. cities generally hostile to anyone of color. The change began in Harlem, when the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a Black dancer, Arthur Mitchell, to found his own ballet company. The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History is journalist Karen Valby’s spirited account of Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem, and of five principal dancers who, half a century after their time in the spotlight, formed the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council to tell their story. 

In 1968, Lydia Abarca was working as a bank secretary and about to enter Fordham University  on a partial scholarship. She had given up on ballet at 15, “tired of giving her whole self over to something that never seemed to love her back.” But a Black principal dancer teaching ballet in a neighborhood church basement lured her back in. Abarca’s mother, a part-time telephone operator, was skeptical, but her father, a janitor from Puerto Rico, did not object. So began Abarca’s rise to international fame. 

With respectful attention to their occasionally troubled lives, Valby introduces Abarca’s peers: Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells. Their “lighthouse,” Arthur Mitchell, is portrayed in his all-too-human complexity, fighting to keep his company funded and recognized, and his ballerinas under his thumb. Mitchell cast a long shadow over the dancers; he was their champion, teacher and employer—and their most unrelenting critic. 

Valby’s extensive interviews with the dancers lend an intimacy to the narrative, the details of their lives elevated and their perspectives clearly observed. The women of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council are determined to bring their story out of obscurity. In The Swans of Harlem, they become unforgettable.

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The Swans of Harlem

The Swans of Harlem

By Karen Valby
ISBN 9780593317525

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