Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides (courtesy Crystal McCoy/Bonnier Publishing)

Talking with Trailblazing Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, Misty Copeland's Mentor

When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.

In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.

The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."

Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.

Tell us a little more about Trailblazer.

The cover for Wilkinson's new children's book (courtesy Crystal McCoy/Bonnier Publishing)

The book's been a long time in the making. I was first contacted about it in 2009, and it was a complete surprise.

I have a great fondness for young folks and young minds, and I have the joy and privilege of addressing young people. They're going to need to learn about the injustices of society. And they need to know about their history. This is the history of America. This isn't just the history of black people. This is the history of the country.

Why do you think this book is relevant today?

We're having a cultural revolution, and the book brings up things the whole of humanity needs to tackle. They are going to keep hitting us in the face until we honestly try to face them, rather than saying "Well that's just the way it is." The same issues have to be settled within politics, art, and the ballet world.

The world is a lot better now than it was back in those days. But it's three steps forward and two steps back.

What do you hope people will take away from your story?

Wilkinson (right) (courtesy Crystal McCoy/Bonnier Publishing)

That if you love something and you chose to pursue it, you'll have to endure challenges and continually persist. And that applies to any dream.

We all have obstacles in life that we have to get over, under, and around. It doesn't matter if you're black or white, female or male—everyone has something to overcome, and that's what I wanted this book to emphasize. It's a story we all share.

What do you think is the hardest part about being an African American in the ballet world?

The burden doesn't lie in the fact that we didn't get the job or the part because of our race. Our burden lies in the fact that we don't know the exact reason why they didn't choose us. The burden is in not knowing why.

Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo didn't take me until the third time I auditioned. And I wondered, was it my technique? Was I not qualified for the part? Or was it my race? You can't put your finger on it, which makes it a lot harder.

On the other hand, one time a student told me that she had auditioned for this and that, and said she hadn't gotten any of the roles because of her race. I don't think that's the right attitude to have. If we keep saying every time we don't get something, that it's because we're African American, that takes away from our actual achievements.

How has Misty been able to create such momentum and progress within ballet?

Misty is a phenomenon. She has so much of everything. By the time she was made a principal ballerina, she'd had a lot of experience already. She's in a wonderful place because she's performed so many different roles. And the technique is honed to perfection. You can't see the seams between her technique and expression.

I love ballet and I love good dancing and I don't care about the who. But when she steps out there, there's a graciousness that flows out of her limbs. The fact that she's so good has helped put her in this place of influence.

What advice would you give the current generation of African American dancers pursuing ballet?

Wilkinson (center) (courtesy Crystal McCoy/Bonnier Publishing)

When I teach, the main thing I tell my students is that you've got to have hope, courage, and faith in yourself. You have to have determination and you can't let disappointment detour you.

The change isn't fast. It takes patience. It takes an awfully long time to start a movement. Patience is the operative word. You can only do your part by continually trying, improving, auditioning, and never giving up.

Latest Posts

Because there's never been a better time to binge-watch "Bunheads" (via Freeform)

5 of the Danciest TV Shows Streaming Right Now (and Where to Stream Them)

We're about two months into #SocialDisDancing, and let's be real—while we all wish we were spending every spare minute stretching, cross-training, or taking online classes, sometimes we just need to Netflix and chill.

We figure, if you're going to be watching TV anyways, why not make it dancy TV? After all, watching pros dance on-screen is basically dance class homework...or at least we'll say it is. Here are five of the danciest TV shows for you to watch—and where to find them.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
The cast of Center Stage in a promotional poster (courtesy Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

The Making of "Center Stage," as Remembered by Its Dance Stars

Whether you first watched it in a theater two decades ago or on Netflix last week, odds are you feel a deep connection to Center Stage. The cult classic, which premiered May 12, 2000, is arguably the greatest dance film ever made. (Dance obsessives might take issue with the "cult" before "classic," not to mention the "dance" before "film.") Jody Sawyer's ballet journey—which combines oh-wow-I've-had-those-blisters realism with wait-does-she-have-magic-color-changing-pointe-shoes fantasy—stands the test of time, early-aughts fashion be darned. We've memorized its highly quotable lines, laughed with (and, gently, at) its heroes, and been inspired by its sincere love of dance and dancers.

To celebrate Center Stage's 20th anniversary, we asked five of its dance stars to talk through their memories of the filming process. Here are their stories of on-set bonding, post-puke kissing scenes, and life imitating art imitating life.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

2020 Dance Grads: We Want to Put You on Our Cover!

Hello, all you members of the great Dance Class of 2020. With the world on lockdown, this hasn't been the graduation season you expected. You likely weren't able to go to prom; your commencement ceremonies have probably been delayed or canceled; and you might not have been able to take your planned-for final bow onstage.

Since you're missing out on so much, we'd like to give you a virtual ovation, to recognize all you've accomplished. And what's the highest honor we can bestow? The cover of Dance Spirit!

Here's the plan:

  • If you're a high school or college senior dancer, use this form to submit your information and dance portrait.
  • Each day during the month of May, we'll create a digital Dance Spirit cover starring one of you, chosen at random—31 covers in total.
  • At the end of the month, we'll create a "commencement video" featuring even more of your submitted dance photos.
  • 100 of you, selected by lottery, will also receive free one-year subscriptions to the print magazine.

Merde, 2020 graduates, as you dance your way into the future!

High School and College Senior Dancers: Submit Your Photo Here

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search