Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

Remembering Raven Wilkinson, Trailblazing Ballerina

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."

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Houston Ballet principals Karina González and Connor Walsh in Stanton Welch's Sylvia (Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet)

The Dos and Don'ts of Partnering

Few things are as nerve-racking as partnering class, especially when you're a newbie. No matter the genre, the stakes feel high—and the potential for awkwardness feels unlimited. How do you avoid smacking your partner in the face? How do you communicate a problem without causing a major conflict? Dance Spirit spoke with some partnering pros to bring you answers to those questions and more.


Common Partnering Pitfalls

1. Deflecting Responsibility

None of us will be perfect partners at all times, especially when we're first learning. When we begin working with a teammate, it can be tempting to deflect responsibility for our weaknesses onto them. Resist the temptation!

"None of us likes to be wrong, so it can feel like a necessity to interpret your actions as correct, and your partner's actions as wrong," says L.A.-based choreographer Phillip Chbeeb. "That can be one of the most damaging dynamics in a partnership. Instead, assume that you have the power to adjust and assuage the problem. If you both maintain this mindset, you will always be able to move forward together."

One of the primary ways partners who are being supported can take responsibility is by simply holding their weight. "A common misconception is that the person doing the lifting is doing all the work, but a good partner is in complete control of their body even when it looks like they're surrendering," says choreographer Stacey Tookey. "You have to be solid on your own," says Houston Ballet principal Karina González. "You can't expect your partner to save you. You have to be comfortable on your supporting leg, whether your partner is there or not."

2. Lacking Spatial Awareness

Worried about smacking your partner in the face? First, just accept that it's going to happen from time to time. "It's the nature of the beast," Tookey says. Then, put in the work to become aware of the space around and between the two of you.

Assess your height difference, if there is one, and how it affects the choreography. Can you identify predictable points of impact that can be avoided with slight shifts in positioning? This dynamic will vary from partnership to partnership, so be patient as you work through the kinks.

To improve your spatial awareness while partnering, "Dancing with the Stars" pro Emma Slater recommends trying dance styles that require you to switch partners often. "Go to social dance events, or to dance classes that have an uneven number of men and women," Slater says. "Doing so will help you get comfortable dancing with a range of artists."

3. Discounting Differences

Just as no two people are the same, no two partnerships will be the same, either. But don't think of the differences between you and your partner as obstacles to overcome. Instead, reframe them as opportunities to make the most of.

Whenever Chbeeb sets choreography on pairs, he reminds himself not to get married to any of the work, because it will likely need to be altered to allow the different bodies to mesh well together. "I embrace the variety in body types and strengths," Chbeeb says. "I look to see what unique things these two specific bodies can create together."

When creating a duo with a partner, Chbeeb likes to discover those possibilities by working with his counterpart—without music. "That way, we don't have limitations to the timing of the shapes we create," he says. "If we stumble across something that works well for our two bodies, we can record it, making a collection of phrases to pull from. Then we can turn on the music and see what translates over."

(From left) Tyler Gledhill, Chelsea Thedinga, and Corey John Snide rehearsing a work by Stacey Tookey (Anna Marchiscello, courtesy Stacey Tookey)

Partnering Best Practices

1. Communicating Productively

Being able to communicate respectfully and effectively with a partner is something that, like any dance skill, takes practice. But it's critical to any partnership's success.

González has found that taking the extra time to think through the phrasing of a correction or question makes all the difference. "Be careful about how you speak," she says. "Take blame out of the conversation altogether, and respectfully communicate your concerns while being open to listening to a different perspective." Chbeeb recommends asking your partner what things they feel you could improve on. Doing so might encourage them to ask the same of you, allowing the two of you to approach corrections on an even footing.

Spending some time with your partner in a nondance setting, if possible, can help the two of you figure out a successful communication style. "During 'So You Think You Can Dance,' the dancers often only get to work together for a handful of hours before they perform," Tookey says. "I recommend they meet outside of the studio and get to know each other so conversation comes more naturally. The more you know each other, the better things will go."

What about the opposite problem, when you and your BFF get paired together and can't stop chatting? "Remind yourself that you have to be focused," González says, because the stakes are high: There's potential for injury if you aren't. "You can even schedule time to talk later, outside of the studio, so that when you're in rehearsal or class, you can keep things professional," González says.

2. Establishing and Respecting Physical Boundaries

It's important to state your boundaries outright. Partnering is inevitably intimate, but it should never cross hard lines set by you, your partner, and your teacher or choreographer. "If something doesn't feel right, you should communicate that to your partner and teacher," González says. "It could be that they didn't realize what was happening in the tangle of partnering. Or, it could be that they did cross a line, and that needs to be addressed immediately." Remember that boundary-setting goes both ways, so be ready to listen and adjust when your partner shares concerns.

It's also common to implicitly associate physical touch with romantic feelings, which can complicate partnering situations. "Many who're new to partnering immediately associate touch with something that isn't dance," Chbeeb says. "This can make professionalism difficult, and hold you back artistically. Try to reframe your perspective, so that you're not interpreting movement as anything other than art."

3. Being Thoughtful About Clothing and Hygiene

Look, dance is inevitably sweaty and messy—that's part of what makes it beautiful! But to be a considerate partner, it's worth thinking about your clothing and hygiene choices.

Chbeeb points out that it's important to choose clothes that won't inadvertently hurt your partner. For example, avoid wearing items with zippers, since they can scratch skin. Going shirtless? Sweaty skin can be dangerously slippery, so keep a towel handy. If you have longer hair, and it's not involved in the choreography, consider pinning it back so it doesn't whip your partner in the face.

Breath and body odor questions are complicated—opinions differ widely when it comes to bodily hygiene. But Chbeeb recommends showering or taking a breath mint before partnering if you know that you'll feel self-conscious otherwise. "You don't want to end up wasting mental space thinking about how you smell rather than the choreography," he says.

González and Walsh rehearsing Sylvia (Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet)

Partnering During a Pandemic

In our new #SocialDisDancing reality, IRL partnering is often impossible. But there are steps you can take to get ready for the moment when we can all be together again.

Chbeeb recommends practicing by using items from around the house as partnering props. "I have always found that working with props stimulates a very similar portion of the brain as partner work," he says. "You get used to the idea of creating visuals that extend beyond your own body. Pick up anything portable—a frying pan!—and use it in a way you had never considered before. Then, apply the discoveries you make with your partner when you come together in person."

González recommends cross-training to develop the strength you'll need to be an effective partner. "Focus on leg and upper-body strength, which will help with lifting," she says. And core exercises will help you support your own weight during complicated partnering work.

You can also use this time alone to get inspired by other great partnerships. Watch YouTube videos of partners in different dance genres and styles, thinking about what it is that makes their collaboration work—mechanically, and also on an intellectual level. "Look to the amazing dancers who have been partnering for years, and apply the strengths you see in them to your own dancing when you return," González says.

Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Cory Lingner

How Broadway Dancer Cory Lingner Perfected the TikTok Duet

With #SocialDisDancing still very much in place, it's a challenge for dance partners to perform safely, and even harder to perform safely together.

But Broadway's Cory Lingner may have found the solution—on TikTok. He's using the app to tap alongside some of the most iconic movie stars, including Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, Ann Miller and Shirley Temple. And, no, he doesn't have a time-traveling device.

Lingner has perfected the use of the app's duet feature. On one side of the video is a clip of the tap-dancing icon and on the other is Lingner, dancing in unison. And as a bonus, Lingner's also giving viewers facts about the stars and the performances as they watch.

Lingner's danced in everything from On the Town to An American in Paris, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Carousel. But still, his tapping TikToks may be one of his favorite challenges yet. "I've gotten very lucky to do shows on Broadway," Lingner says, "But I haven't actually gotten to do as much tapping as I'm doing in these videos."

When Broadway shut down last March due to the pandemic, Lingner was in rehearsals for Love Life with New York City Center's Encores! series. Without a stage and a live audience, he's getting his fill of performing from his social media duet series. And it's so popular on TikTok, he's gained more than 8 thousand followers in a mere month.


@corylingner

##duet with @tcm & Gene Kelly!! Couldn’t think of a better way to make my TikTok debut! ##genekelly tapdancechallenge ##tap ##tapdance ##dancechallenge

♬ original sound - Turner Classic Movies

Dance Spirit: How did your "Cory's Duet Series" on TikTok get started?

Cory Lingner: It was kind of just a spur-of-the-moment thing. The very first spark of inspiration was another fellow tapper, Nicole Billow. She actually did the first side-by-side with Gene Kelly from An American in Paris. I watched it and I was like, "This looks really fun." I went ahead and made a TikTok account and made my first duet. I posted that thing with zero followers and by the end of the night, there were 500 followers and it was blowing up with views.

DS: How do you pick which numbers you're going to do?

CL: Well, part of it is going down the YouTube rabbit hole looking up performers that I'm familiar with. The majority of what I've tried to focus on is introducing new performers so I don't repeat dancers too much. The last time that I repeated was with Vera Allen in White Christmas, since it was the holiday.

I also try to find sections where not only I can do the choreography in my limited space, with my little piece of plywood, but also if they're able to stay on a single camera shot for long enough for the 20 to 30 seconds.

DS: How long does it take you to learn the dances?

CL: It depends. If I'm a bit more familiar with it, I can probably pick it up quicker. Sometimes it takes 15 to 30 minutes. One that I worked on that I'm going to share is with Ginger Rogers. That took about an hour and a half. Luckily, I've always been a visual learner.

DS: What do you think about the skill level of some of Shirley Temple's tap steps?

CL: It's remarkable the fact that she did that many films and had that kind of tap dance skill set at such a young age. It is so impressive to me. People were commenting on that video too, writing, "Oh my gosh, I didn't even realize what she can do. That's very impressive."

DS: It seems like we don't see this style of dance anymore, since the Golden Age of the Hollywood movie musical. How do you feel film choreography has changed since then?

CL: This style of dance definitely does feel different. I've always admired it and gravitated towards it. It's fascinating to picture how these choreographers even conceptualized sequences where the stars are dancing all across these sets and sound stages.

I find myself wondering, "Did they have the set to begin with and then worked on it, or did they come up with ideas and then that gave set designers ideas to build?" The rhythms and the tap melodies are pretty bright, and that makes it really fun for me and exciting for anyone watching.

DS: What is some of the feedback you've been getting?

CL: Oh, my goodness. It's so lovely, all the comments and messages. There was a grandmother that said, "I think you just inspired my 3-year-old grandson to start taking dance." It warms my heart. From what I'm reading and seeing, it still resonates with so many people.

DS: What are some dream duets that you need to do?

CL: I've gotten a lot of people up requesting the Nicholas Brothers. They're the best. I'm going to try to see if I can find something to do them justice and try to keep up with them. But with my little piece of plywood, there's no way I can do their iconic jump into the splits because I'd get splinters.

There were other duets people were recommending, like James Cagney. So I'm trying to find a moment when he stays still. I learned "Moses Supposes" from Singin' in the Rain many years ago, which would be really fun to tackle again. Maybe I'd do that one in two separate sections, so I can do one with Gene Kelly and one with Donald O'Connor.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin (center) after teaching a master class at the Center for Civil and Human Rights (Emily Hawkins, courtesy Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)

4 Dance Works Honoring the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Social justice has a been a prominent theme in many Black American dancemakers' repertoires. Today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day­—and in the midst of ongoing social and political turmoil in America—this theme carries new resonance.

Dr. King's legacy has spurred the creation of many dance works, with many creators using his words to respond to the social issues of the moment. So, today, in celebration of MLK, Jr. Day, here are four of those dances which honor the legacy of the late civil rights leader.


"r-Evolution, Dream." by Hope Boykin

Set to a soundscape that includes music by jazz musician Ali Jackson, narration by Tony Award-winner Leslie Odom, Jr., "r-Evolution, Dream.," performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, debuted in 2017. Choreographer—and Ailey vet—Hope Boykin was inspired to create the piece on a visit to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. "I got a chance to listen to Dr. King's voice and watch the footage of his funeral with the casket running through the city," Boykin said in an interview with the L.A. Times. Boykin says she was especially stirred by the cadence and sound of his voice.

Moved by the timeliness of Dr. King's teachings (over a half century after he first orated them), Boykin set out to create a ballet that, in effect, translated some of his most famous sermons and teachings into movement. The ensemble piece, which also features solos and sets of pas de deuxs, is a powerful reminder of the long fight ahead for racial equality in America.

"Bodies as a Site of Faith and Protest" by Tommie-Waheed Evans

First performed by Dallas Black Dance Theatre in 2018, "Bodies as Site of Faith and Protest" also transcribes Dr. King's words into dance—only this work zeroes in one particular speech: Dr. King's "We Shall Overcome."

The most resounding imagery in choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans's work is the clump of dancers at center-center, who march and march with searing purpose oozing from their eyes—yet seem to arrive nowhere. It's as if Evans puts on display the historical, present, and future conditions of the Black American: That the battle for equal protection under the law will be ongoing.

"Dougla" by Geoffrey Holder

In response to the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, Arthur Mitchell, then a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, felt compelled to take action. His efforts would culminate in the formation of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

The ballet troupe performs everything from classical rep to new works—one of the most iconic is Geoffrey Holder's "Dougla," with movement that depicts the wedding of a Dougla couple, in which one partner is of African descent and the other of Indian descent. The ballet features a spectacle of costume, with a thumping, grounding pulsation of drums beneath movement that, in of itself, is bold and unafraid of making a statement.

Perhaps most memorable about this piece are the moments done in unison, when everything is "working together at once," as Carmen de Lavallade, who helped restage the piece for DTH in 2018, said to theNew York Times. The power in these moments of togetherness conjures scenes of Americans marching in unity for social justice, echoing the very reasons Dr. King worked to lead change before his death.

"Deep Blue Sea" by Bill T. Jones

In an interview with our sister publication Dance Magazine, Jones says the work deals with one overarching question in particular: "Are we really still this beacon, this light on a hill, this conglomerate of disparate groups and stakeholders that we call American democracy?" As a young child, he believed that the Black community could overcome the effects of systematic racism, said Jones to DM. Now, he has less faith—and "Deep Blue Sea" dives into the reasons why.

Intended to be performed at the Park Avenue Armory, the cast included not only the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, but also nearly 100 members of the New York City community.

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