Dance News

Remembering Raven Wilkinson, Trailblazing Ballerina

Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

Ballerina Raven Wilkinson passed away on Monday at her home in New York City at age 83. Wilkinson is best known as the first African American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and as a cherished mentor to Misty Copeland.

Raven Wilkinson presenting Misty Copeland with the Dance Magazine Award in 2014. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima for Dance Magazine.


Wilkinson was born in New York City in 1935. She fell in love with ballet at age five while attending a performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's Coppélia. In a 2014 interview with Pointe, she recalled the experience: "I remember being so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights, that I started crying." For her ninth birthday, her uncle gave her the gift of ballet classes with Maria Swoboda. In 1951, Swoboda's school was purchased by Sergei Denham, the director of the Ballet Russe, and he began culling dancers for his company. Despite being recognized as talented, Wilkinson didn't make the cut. After multiple auditions, Wilkinson said a friend pulled her aside and said, "Raven, they can't afford to take you because of your race." Then a student at Columbia University, Wilkinson was undeterred; after her third audition in 1955, at age 20, she got in. Shortly before he passed away in 2013, former Ballet Russe dancer Frederic Franklin, who'd given class at Wilkinson's final audition, told her that he had pushed the company's leadership to take her.

Wilkinson's six years with the Ballet Russe were filled with both happiness and hardship. In her second season she was promoted to soloist, and danced a number of leading roles including the waltz solo in Les Sylphides. But Ballet Russe was primarily a touring company, and Wilkinson had to combat extreme racism during trips to the Deep South. In 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, a hotel owner refused to let her stay with the rest of the company; Denham sent her back to New York and instructed her to rejoin the company once their tour took them closer to the Mason Dixon Line. Wilkinson also experienced run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, most notably in Alabama, where (as she outlines in the picture book Trailblazer) two members stormed into the theater and interrupted a Ballet Russe performance. Throughout these years, Wilkinson's colleagues protected and supported her: "If it looked like there might be trouble after a show, company boys would appear at the stage door to escort me," she told Pointe in 2014. Denham continued to cast her in soloist roles regardless of where the company was performing.

Wilkinson with her younger brother and parents. Courtesy Wilkinson.

The Ballet Russe was very international, and with her fair complexion some of the other dancers urged Wilkinson to say that she was Spanish. She often lightened her skin with makeup for performances, but she refused to hide her identity if asked about it directly. Earlier this year, Wilkinson told Pointe that she attributed this pride to her upbringing. Though she grew up on 150th Street in Harlem (above what she called "the Mason Dixon Line of New York"), she and her mother often faced questioning when spending time in other parts of the city. "People were curious because they had a certain idea in their mind of what African American people were like, that they didn't speak well or weren't well-clothed or were poor, and they didn't believe my mother and I were African American," she said. "They'd ask, 'What are you?' and my mother would say, 'We're American.'"

In 1961, Wilkinson left the Ballet Russe. Despite her classical training and professional experience, at auditions she was told to try African dance or jazz instead. Eventually her friend Sylvester Campbell, a black American dancer working for the Dutch National Ballet, urged her to join him in Amsterdam. Highlights of her Dutch National career included Balanchine repertoire and the Swan Lake pas de trois. Wilkinson found the culture of the Netherlands to be much more accepting. "They weren't interested in what you were, but who you were," she said in our interview earlier this year. In 1974, a homesick Wilkinson returned to New York and was invited to join the New York City Opera. She stopped dancing at age 50, but continued on there as an actress until 2011, when the company folded.

Wilkinson, center, with colleagues in the Ballet Russe. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

In her later years, Wilkinson developed a special friendship with Copeland. Wilkinson first discovered the then-teenage dancer while watching a TV program highlighting her in a variation from Don Quixote. "I took one look at her and knew that she knew what dancing was all about," Wilkinson told Pointe. I fell to my knees saying, 'Please god, let her make it.'" Copeland writes in her memoir Life in Motion that after hearing Wilkinson's story in a documentary on the Ballet Russe, she spoke about her so often that her publicist finally tracked her down so the two dancers could meet. "She is humble, hilarious, and so full of funny, poignant tales that she never repeats one," Copeland writes of Wilkinson. "We speak the same very rare language: that of a black classical ballet dancer." When Copeland made her debut as Odette/Odile with American Ballet Theatre in 2015, Wilkinson, along with former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson, joined her onstage, arms overflowing with flowers. Copeland's breakout success has also helped bring Wilkinson's story back into the spotlight: Wilkinson was featured in the 2016 documentary Black Ballerina, and last year a picture book based on her life titled Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson was published with a forward by Copeland.

Earlier this year I asked Wilkinson if she had advice for young dancers who might feel discouraged, or who don't feel they fit into the slowly-changing world of ballet. "In the darkness and the futility of the moment you have to get up and keep going, put one foot in front of the other. It's only in trying and keeping going that you achieve," she told me. "You can't expect that it's all going to happen for you just because you're out there pointing your toes nicely. You have to open your mind and heart, and you must believe in yourself and have faith and hope."

The Conversation
Health & Body
Via @chelshightower on Instagram

From competing on "So You Think You Can Dance" to performing on "Dancing with the Stars" for seven seasons (and earning an Emmy nomination for her work on the latter), Chelsie Hightower has lived the pro dance dream. Though Hightower retired from "DWTS" several years ago and now teaches and choreographs in her home state of Utah, she admits that her dance career exceeded even her own high expectations. "I've accomplished things that I didn't know were possible," she says.

But most fans of "DWTS" would never have guessed that while filming, the talented and seemingly fearless ballroom pro was facing her fiercest competitor off-camera. Hightower has struggled with anxiety for most of her life, but the issue became especially severe during her years on the show.

With the help of therapy and other coping exercises, Hightower has found healthy ways to manage her anxiety. Now, she hopes that sharing her experience will inspire other dancers struggling with mental illness to get help.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Past "SYTYCD" hopefuls at The Academy (Adam Rose/FOX)

More fabulous TWall routines. More passengers on the Hot Tamale Train. MORE CAT DEELEY BEING DELIGHTFUL.

That's right, y'all: "So You Think You Can Dance" was just renewed for a 16th (!) season, to air this summer on Fox. And audition dates have already been announced.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
It includes this familiar face! (Erin Baiano)

Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?

Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.

Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Dancer Tony Bellissimo on the field at Super Bowl LII (via Instagram)

The Super Bowl is America's most-watched television event. Last year, when the incomparable Justin Timberlake took center field for the halftime show, more than 106 million viewers were watching his every move—and that's not even a record!

What's it like to perform for such an incredibly huge audience? Dancer Tony Bellissimo has plenty of experience with high-pressure dance gigs, having worked with artists including Rihanna, Britney Spears, John Legend, and Chris Brown. But stepping out alongside Timberlake during last year's halftime show was a next-level experience. We talked to Bellissimo about how he scored such a coveted job—and how he handled the pressure.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
screenshot via @donte.colley on Instagram

Y'all, it's time to call a spade a spade: The first month of any New Year kind of sucks. It's way too cold, you're probs failing at one or two of those ambitious resolutions, and spring (with its exciting performing opportunities) feels so very far away. And yet, in the midst of so much darkness, a hero has emerged. His name is Donté Colley, and you're about to double-tap every single thing he's ever posted.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Photo by Joe Toreno

It's almost 2019 and the ballroom dance scene is positively booming! From prestigious world championships to TV shows, kids are at the core of all this hip-shaking action—and we're so here for it. These eight up-and-comers in particular are shaping the field. They're the next generation of superstars to make the leap from technically exquisite ballroom-ites to bona fide celebrities.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun

Everyone loves a good meme, and dancers are no exception. Here are 10 of the best dance memes on the internet.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher
Joanne Chapman teaching turns (photo by Dan Boskovic, courtesy Joanne Chapman School of Dance)

Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
It includes this familiar face! (Erin Baiano)

Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?

Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.

Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Where did we put the much-debated Season 13? You might be surprised. (Adam Rose/FOX)

It's crazy that "So You Think You Can Dance" is gearing up for its 16th season! Time flies when you're revolutionizing dance on TV, right? The show's definitely come a long way since its premiere back in 2005, and tbh, there hasn't been a single season we haven't loved. But which season did we love most? Here's our (sure-to-be-controversial) ranking of 14 seasons of "SYT" goodness.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Thinkstock

Dance teachers have to deal with a lot. While open communication with your teacher is obviously key, lame excuses for less-than-great behavior are guaranteed to get on her nerves. Always avoid these seven excuses that will 100 percent get your dance teacher's blood boiling.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
via @dynamicdancestudios on Instagram

There are dance routines, and then there are dance routines. Andrew, a 21-year-old dancer with Down Syndrome, performed the latter on the new British reality dance show "The Greatest Dancer." He brought the audience to tears as he unabashedly freestyled to Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop The Feeling."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
The Broadway cast of Hamilton (Joan Marcus, courtesy Sam Rudy PR)

Today, January 11, is #AlexanderHamiltonDay: A very happy 264th birthday to Alexander Hamilton! Thanks to this most unlikely of Founding Fathers—a brilliant and ballsy orphaned immigrant who dramatically rose, then fell, then rose again—we have possibly the most successful musical of all time. We also, of course, got priceless GIFs such as this one:

*When your crush walks over and you're trying to act natural but your friends are all like*

Aaaaaaaaaaanyway, while we can't get you "in the room where it happens" with tickets to the show's current Broadway, touring, or Puerto Rico productions—the last of which opens tonight!—we CAN offer up some fun ways to fête A.Ham's day of birth. Just you wait:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by 4Star Productions Courtesy Spirit of Dance Awards

The second round of 2018 Future Star winners showcases dancers with singular talent and ability. We're thrilled to celebrate their success!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Screenshot via YouTube

Every once in a while, the stars align, things fall precisely into place, and the perfect marketing campaign is born. Such is the case with New York City Ballet's new trailer for their upcoming run of The Sleeping Beauty, which was conceived and directed by company soloist Sean Suozzi.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
via @torysport on Instagram

Washington Ballet's Nardia Boodoo is turning heads these days, and not just at the barre. The brilliant ballerina shines in Tory Sport's latest commercial and we can't help but feel a little bit of pride as our March 2018 cover star brings ballet to the masses. What better way to show off stylish and comfy athletic wear than with Boodoo's strong and luminous dancing?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Hall works with students at Dance Conservatory of Charleston. (courtesy Dance Conservatory of Charleston)

As the name suggests, summer intensives are, well, intense, encouraging you to eat, sleep, and breathe dance for a significant chunk of the summer. But they're not for every dancer—or every summer. Maybe you're not ready to be away from home just yet, or you want to spend your last summer with family before going off to college. Intensives can also be expensive, and not every household has the financial flexibility to cover the high cost of auditions, travel, room and board, and tuition. Whatever your reasons for seeking alternatives, it's important to recognize that, when it comes to summer study, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. "The most important thing is to keep dancing," says Lindy Mandradjieff, owner of the Dance Conservatory of Charleston in South Carolina. "Without the added stress of school, you can improve as much in one summer as you would in an entire school year." Here's how to keep up your training even if you don't plan on attending an intensive.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways