Dance News

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

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

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.

Show Comments ()
Popular

Summer dance camp season will be here before you know it and you might be starting to wonder what you need to pack in your bag. Don't stress, we have 5 of the top must haves for camp this summer!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Safe to say that flexibility is still not an issue for the talented Ms. Igo. (screenshot via YouTube)

Because winning the Junior Division on last summer's inaugural season of "World of Dance" (suuuuuuuuuuper casual) just wasn't enough.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
It's already on its way to legendary status. (screenshot via YouTube)

Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.

So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

We caught up with former Rockette Trina Simon at Showstopper's Myrtle Beach dance convention to get her expert advice on how to work as a professional dancer. Trina's work on Broadway has given her insight into the key things to focus on as a professional dancer looking for jobs and making a name for yourself, whether you are new to the world of professional dance or you have been making your way from one audition to the next for a while.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Screenshot via YouTube
Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Safe to say that flexibility is still not an issue for the talented Ms. Igo. (screenshot via YouTube)

Because winning the Junior Division on last summer's inaugural season of "World of Dance" (suuuuuuuuuuper casual) just wasn't enough.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Including Travis Wall, obviously! (Adam Rose/FOX)

"So You Think You Can Dance" is often a launching pad for a dancer's career. While many "SYT" alums go on to perform for iconic artists or join high-profile companies, some also become choreographers—and a few even come full-circle, making dances for the show where it all began. Here are 8 talented choreographers who got their start as "SYTYCD" hopefuls.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Photo by Lucas Chilczuk

Click here to get the inside scoop on the film High Strung: Free Dance!

Juliet Doherty has been at home in the studio and the spotlight since before she could walk. The 21-year-old comes from a long line of dancers: She practically grew up at the school her grandmother owned, Fishback Studio of the Dance in Albuquerque, NM, and her mom was her longtime teacher. As a young student, Doherty competed at the world's toughest ballet competitions and performed as Clara in the Radio City Christmas SpectacularRadio City Christmas Spectacular. Eventually, she left Albuquerque to train at the San Francisco Ballet School for three years, and then she danced with Phoenix Ballet for two years.

Along the way, Doherty discovered another great love: acting. In 2014, she was part of the cast of the Susan Stroman–directed musical Little Dancer (alongside Tiler Peck). And in 2017, she appeared in her first film, On Pointe—playing, naturally, an ambitious young dancer.

Now, Doherty's on the big screen again, starring as Barlow in High Strung: Free Dance. Plus, she has a new city to call home: NYC. Doherty sat down with us to talk about the film, her transition into acting, and what's next.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Want to Be on Our Cover?

covermodelsearch-image

Video

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored