Celebrating Black Dance History - Boston Ballet

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Celebrating Black Dance History

Chisako Oga and Daniel Durrett in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Black History Month is a time to reflect on and celebrate the impact that Black Americans have had in our country. In honor of Black History Month, we are highlighting dance moments by Black dancers and leaders for their contributions to American dance and ballet history.

Kyra Strasberg and Geoffrey Rhue in George Balanchine's Agon©The George Balanchine Trust

Erika Lambe

Photo by Lisa Blalock

1931: KATHERINE DUNHAM and Mark Turbyfill form a group called Ballet Nègre, one of the first Black ballet companies in the United States.

1931: JOHN BUBBLES and Ford Lee “Buck” Washington became the first African American tap-dancing duo to play at Radio City Music Hall. They performed together for nearly 40 years.

1943: The movie musical “Stormy Weather,” with an African American cast, was released featuring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Janet Collins, and world-famous tap and “flash” dancers Fayard and Harold Nicholas also known as “THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS.”

1951: JANET COLLINS made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the opera Aida. The piece was choreographed by Zachary Solov and had 27 performances that season. Later, she would receive a full-time contract with the Met. She left in 1954 to tour the United States and Canada in solo dance concerts and teach dance.

1955: RAVEN WILKINSON became the first African American woman to receive a contract to dance full-time with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo of New York City. She was promoted to soloist during her second season and performed with the company for six years.

1957: Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer in the history of New York City Ballet, and Diana Adams, who was white, danced the central pas de deux in Balanchine’s Agon. In the 1950s, casting the interracial pairing sparked controversy and backlash. However, Balanchine choreographed the pas de deux especially for Mitchell and Adams. “My skin color against hers, it became part of the choreography,” said Mitchell (POINTE MAGAZINE).

1958: ALVIN AILEY founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His vision was dedicated to enriching the American modern dance heritage and preserving the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now The Ailey School) in 1969 and formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II) in 1974. Ailey was a pioneer of programs promoting arts in education, particularly those benefiting underserved communities.

1963: JOSEPHINE BAKER, a popular performer and dancer with an illustrative career spanning 50 years in Europe, spoke at the March on Washington alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She was the only official female speaker. Racism in the United States often restricted her from gaining the same renown at home as she did abroad. Baker fought segregation through organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which honored her contributions by having Sunday, May 20 declared as “Josephine Baker Day.”

1964: Tony Williams joined Boston Ballet and became principal dancer within three years. After retiring from the stage, Williams has been advocating racial diversity through teaching dance to underserved youths for over 25 years. He also founded the TONY WILLIAMS DANCE CENTER and the annual holiday tradition of The Urban Nutcracker which incorporates Duke Ellington’s music, along with hip-hop, tap, and other musical forms not typically associated with the ballet classic.

1970 Nutcracker Edra Toth and Tony Williams, Sugar Plum and Cavalier, Nutcracker, BBC

Photo by unknown

1969: At the height of the civil rights movement, Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded DANCE THEATRE OF HARLEM. Mitchell has said the idea was formed by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Current Artistic Director Virginia Johnson reflected, “Arthur Mitchell created this space for a lot of people who had been told, ‘You can’t do this,’ to give them a chance to do what they dreamed of doing.” According to The New York Times, Dance Theatre of Harlem is considered “one of ballet’s most exciting undertakings.”

1975: LYDIA ABARCA became the first Black female ballerina on the cover of Dance Magazine. She was Dance Theatre of Harlem’s first prima ballerina and performed works including George Balanchine’s Bugaku and Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun. She went on to perform in Bubbling Brown Sugar and The Wiz on Broadway.

1984: Dance Theatre of Harlem’s CREOLE GISELLE premiered in 1984 at the London Coliseum. Based on the original by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, it was reconceived by Arthur Mitchell, staged by Frederic Franklin, and set in an Afro-Creole community in Louisiana during the 1840s.

1988: The first International Conference on Black Dance Companies was held in Philadelphia and organized by Joan Myers Brown along with the Philadanco! staff which later would inform the formalization of the INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BLACKS IN DANCE.

1991: After performing with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and New York City Ballet, MEL TOMLINSON joined Boston Ballet as a principal dancer and master teacher in the CITYDANCE program which brings free classical dance to public school children in the Boston area.

1992: STEPHEN GALLOWAY is named head costume designer and style coordinator at Ballet Frankfurt under the artistic direction of William Forsythe. Galloway joined the company when he was just 17. In 2022, Galloway staged his world premiere DEVIL’S/eye set to the iconic Rolling Stones at Boston Ballet.

2001: ERIKA LAMBE became the first African American Sugarplum Fairy in Boston Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. A native of Brookline, MA, Lambe is the granddaughter of tenor, Roland Hayes, who opened the doors to black classical singers by being the first black classical singer to sing at Symphony Hall. Lambe joined Boston Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet in 1993. She is currently teaching at the Tony Williams Dance Center, Brookline Academy of Dance, and Intergarte.

2006: TAI JIMENEZ joined Boston Ballet as the first Black female principal dancer where she originated a role in Mark Morris’ Up and Down, and was also seen in Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena, Jorma Elo’s Carmen, Balanchine’s Serenade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nijinska’s Les Noces and Asaf Messerer’s Spring Waters.

2015: After fourteen years with American Ballet Theatre, MISTY COPELAND was promoted to principal dancer becoming the first African American woman ever to hold that position in the Company.

2015: Theresa Ruth Howard founded MEMOIRS OF BLACKS IN BALLET (MoBBallet) which preserves, presents, and promotes the contributions and stories of Black artists in the field of Ballet, illustrating that they are an integral part of dance history at large.

2018: FREED OF LONDON, one of the largest manufacturers of pointe shoes, finally started selling brown and bronze pointe shoes (in addition to pink). “This isn’t about shoes, this is about who belongs in ballet and who doesn’t,” said Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theater of Harlem. “It’s a signal that the world is open to you.”

2019: CHARLOTTE NEBRES became the first Black Marie (known as Clara in the Boston Ballet production) in New York City Ballet’s George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

2022: CHYRSTYN FENTROY was promoted to principal dancer at Boston Ballet. The news of her promotion was featured in THE NEW YORK TIMES and THE BOSTON GLOBE. In 2023, Fentroy was featured on the cover of Dance Magazine.

2022: Boston Ballet Second Soloist MICHAELA DEPRINCE worked in collaboration with Nike Women on their global campaign and was featured in Coppelia, a combined animated and live action dance film.

2022: Boston Ballet dancer DANIEL DURRETT was promoted to second soloist.

2023: Boston Ballet dancer TYSON ALI CLARK was promoted to second soloist and SYDNEY WILLIAMS joined the Company from Boston Ballet II as an artist.

2023: Boston Ballet’s Citydance alumna, Ebony Williams, is a world-renowned dancer and choreographer. Her choreography can be seen in everything from movies “In The Heights” to global publications like “Vogue.” Williams choreographed a new work for Boston Ballet’s Siren Ball in 2023.

2023: Mikko Nissinen’s THE NUTCRACKER saw record breaking attendance and a number of lead roles peformed by black artists such as: Boston Ballet Soloist LAWRENCE RINES MUNRO, Second Soloists DANIEL DURRETT and TYSON ALI CLARK performed as Snow King, and Daniel Durrett performed as Cavalier.

There are many Black dancers and companies to celebrate who have impacted American dance and this article is in no way representative of the breadth of contributions to this art form by Black artists and pioneers.



THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF BLACKS IN DANCE (IABD) preserves and promotes dance by people of African ancestry or origin, and assists and increases opportunities for artists in advocacy, audience development, education, funding, networking, performance, philosophical dialogue, and touring.

MOBBALLET’S mission is to illuminate the lesser-known history and legacies of international professional Black ballet artists that have been muted, or oftentimes eradicated from the larger canon of dance history by being the digital platform that compiles it in one online location.

LA’TOYA PRINCESS JACKSON has compiled a historical perspective of Blacks in ballet called “BLACK SWANS: SHATTERING THE GLASS CEILING.” In addition to being a singer-songwriter, dancer, professional performing artist, and historian on African American performance, she is also a former Teaching Artist for Citydance and ECI on Location and teacher in the Boston Ballet School. Her research aims to reshape the narrative by removing the Eurocentric lens in which the history of ballet is told and giving voice to the stories and contributions of Blacks to the overall ballet canon.

Learn more about Boston Ballet’s commitment to DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION.