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Remembering Pioneering Ballerina Raven Wilkinson

Remembering Pioneering Ballerina Raven Wilkinson

Raven Wilkinson, the first African American woman to receive a contract to dance full-time with a major ballet company, has passed away at the age of 83. 

Wilkinson developed a passion for ballet at age five when her mother took her to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. By age nine, she was studying with well-known Russian dancer Maria Swoboda, telling Pointe Magazine in an 2014 interview: "The lessons were a present from my uncle for my ninth birthday, I remember. I was thrilled by ballet."

At 20 years old, Wilkinson broke the color barrier when she was accepted into the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955. However, it was under the condition that she wear white makeup so she could pass as a white woman - especially in the South, because it was illegal for Black and white dancers to share the same stage. 

"I didn't want to put the company in danger, but I also never wanted to deny who I was," Wilkinson explained. "If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not Black.’ Some of the other dancers suggested that I say I was Spanish. But that’s like telling the world there’s something wrong with what you are."

Photo via: PBS

After six years of enduring severe racial discrimination, Wilkinson left the company and joined the Dutch National Ballet, then later the New York City Opera before retiring at age 50. She went on to pave the way for generations of Black ballerinas, including Misty Copeland who made history in 2015 as the American Ballet Theatre's first African American woman principal dancer. Copeland called Wilkinson her lifelong mentor. 

"She's been through so much more than I could ever imagine, in the 1950s and experiencing racism in that time. It just felt like, I can do this,” Copeland told Time Magazine. "It made me feel really empowered not to let the negativity of racism even to this day affect me and my career. I can be strong and persevere and allow my talent to shine beyond the color of my skin."

Ms. Wilkinson, thank you for blazing a trail for present and future ballerinas. Rest in power.