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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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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