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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Because all dancers have experienced it at some point or another (Getty Images/patat)

How Dancers Can Beat Zoom Fatigue

Now that we're more than nine months into the pandemic, there's a big chance you're feeling Zoom-ed out. Read: Totally overusing the video-conferencing app for school and dance classes—and everything else. And according to dance/movement therapist Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, there's good reason for that: "Managing your environment in a virtual space is taxing on the mind, and therefore taxing on the body."

Hornthal attributes these feelings, in part, to a mind–body disconnect that happens when we use the app: Your body knows you are alone in the room, but your mind sees a group of people on screen—and managing this COVID-era reality can be, well, exhausting. But we can also feel Zoom fatigue, Hornthal says, from having to "constantly be present to the third 'person' in the room: the Zoom camera." Uh, relatable!

So if staring at a grid of fuzzy faces—or into the abyss of that cold, dark lens on your device—has you feeling less than energized, here are some ways to cope.


Take breaks from tech throughout the day

Tamia Strickland, a sophomore in the Ailey/Fordham BFA dance program, trains both in person (with a mask, of course!) and online but says there are unique challenges that come with the latter. For one, she says, it's hard "to stay focused and motivated when you are in your basement or living room staring at a computer screen all by yourself—and all day long." These feelings can lead to frustration: You want to stay engaged with the class, but after staring at your computer screen for so long, you start to feel unmotivated.

As a remedy, Hornthal suggests taking breaks from your tech devices when you can. "The last thing you want to do," she says, "is exit a Zoom session and then immediately jump onto your phone." Instead, take a breather from everything virtual, and give your mind—and body—time to recalibrate. "Create space to connect or reconnect with your body when you are off technology," Hornthal says. "Take a walk, practice mindful breathing, embrace nature."

Move for yourself—and on your own

Another way to overcome feelings of online-class fatigue, Hornthal says, is to find time to move on your own—away from the camera on your device. As you begin moving for yourself, try to recognize and notice your own body wisdom. As a dancer, this could simply mean taking stock of what feels good and natural to your body as you, say, indulge in an improv sesh.

Tim Roberts, a Maryland dance studio owner and former performer, says giving his students time to turn their cameras off and work through their own movement has helped keep them motivated. "Opening that space for them is so necessary­ and beneficial, and helps them appreciate the time they do have with me," he says.

If you're not feeling up to a movement break, consider cooling down the mind and body by taking some time to stretch out and take up space in the body, Hornthal says. By encouraging greater body awareness, stretching can help give you more insight into what your body needs at any given point—a physical check-in before you head back into The Land of Zoom.

Tap into your other senses

When you're on Zoom, you're constantly using your eyes—to learn choreography, to support fellow dancers, to catch physical cues from teachers—so it's important, Hornthal says, to give yourself screen breaks. As you give your eyes a rest, take time to whet your other senses: Squeeze a stress ball; smell the outside air; gulp a tasty green smoothie; listen to your favorite playlist. The key here is to take in stimuli that trigger your other senses, rather than continuing to use (or overuse) your sense of sight.

And as a golden rule for your overall Zoom-life health, always remember: "It isn't just dance that is happening online—our entire lives are virtual," Hornthal says. "That means we have to be intentional with our downtime, and turn off technology, so we can tune in to ourselves."

Because honestly, what could be better than dancing alongside your mom? (Getty Images/undrey)

How You Can Support the Beginner Dancer in Your Life

Plenty of us have been dancing since we were teeny-tiny tappers and trinas, but walking into a dance class as an older beginner can be seriously intimidating. Luckily, one silver lining of the pandemic is that it's easier than ever to try out a two-step without even stepping into the studio—virtual classes seem to be everywhere we click nowadays.

Is one of your friends, siblings, parents, or grandparents interested in starting to dance, but totally unsure about where to begin? As the resident dancer in their lives, there are plenty of ways for you to encourage them. Here are just a few of the ways to support the newest dancer in your life.


Roll Out the Recommendations

The pandemic has opened up a whole new world of dance classes that you can stream right into your living room. By now, you're probably a seasoned Zoom dance pro. So start by asking your aspiring dancer what their goals are. Are they looking to just become more active? Study a specific genre of dance? Find a new creative outlet? Take that info and help them narrow down what kinds of virtual classes they might enjoy. Then, recommend some studios you know and love.

Be sure to give your friend or relative an impression of what to expect from their virtual class. Don't forget to offer Zoom-specific tips, like where to place their camera, or how to rearrange their furniture to provide enough space for class. And if they're nervous (or don't want the pressure of being on camera for their first few classes), let them know it's okay to leave their camera off until they're ready to try class with it on. After all, if Hugh Jackman can do it, so can they

Join Their Journey

Maybe you'd also like to broaden your dance horizons, or your friend is looking for an accountability partner. Try taking a beginner level class with your friend in a style you're unfamiliar with. Plenty of studios offer workshops for beginning dancers in a variety of styles, like Broadway Dance Center's Absolute Beginner Workshop seriesAbsolute Beginner Workshop series, which offers a series in every genre from ballet to street jazz.

Another option is to find a dance class video on YouTube, like Kathryn Morgan's at-home class series, and take it at the same time over a Zoom call by sharing your screen. That way, you can pause the video if you need to answer a question from your friend. (And try your best to remain calm when they ask you, for the fifth time, what "plié" means.)

Cheer Them Through Challenges

Most importantly, be there to support your friend or relative in their new dance journey. You know that there can be bumps along the road, but you also know that nothing compares to the feeling of nailing a hard combo, or accomplishing your next dance goal. The newest dancer in your life has all those milestones to look forward to along the way. Don't let them get discouraged when it's difficult —and help them celebrate their accomplishments, big or small.

Photo by Anaiah Simons, courtesy Taylor Jade Edgin

How Dance Helped Me Achieve Success in My Nondance Career Path

Like most kids, by the age of 4 I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up…a dancer. And sure, every kid picks a career to play along with—doctor, veterinarian, princess. But from that young age of 4, I was determined to turn my dream into a reality.

I spent my adolescent years in multiple dance companies, training to make the move to L.A. And then I got it: glimpses of my big break. I began working for and with the choreographers on my bucket list, got accepted into dance companies I'd tirelessly watch on YouTube, and even made it on that national commercial that my friends, family (and don't forget the frenemies!) got to see on repeat.

But then, suddenly, I felt a shift. Was I, the dancer who spent 18 years of blood, sweat and tears (and a crap ton of money) getting burnt out from the everyday hustle of my industry?

If I'm being honest, I always felt like the odd one out in my profession. It took me about four years of paying my dues in L.A. to realize that everything that was different about myself—and my mind—would serve as the catapult towards my new career path as a creative director.


Just Outside of Dance

While grappling with my sudden change of desire, I reflected on where it all started. I remembered being 10 years old, listening to the Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk album in the car, closing my eyes and visualizing a whole music video in my head. And while I thought that meant I would just be the choreographer or the dancer performing in the video, I never realized it might also mean I could be the person to bring the music video to life.

I flashed back to my various experiences on set as a dancer. I remembered how I always took interest in communicating with other departments and learning about their industries, and realized that it's OK to pursue creative endeavors beyond dance. I also paid close attention to how I was treated on set as "talent," taking all the things I learned and didn't like into deep consideration.

Growing Into the Role

Opening my mind allowed for a lot of fun opportunities, like the time I got to star as the lead in a music video that I was also hired to choreograph and direct, or when I started working with my teenage idol and mentor D-Trix, who taught me how to simultaneously choreograph and direct a piece for the camera. Combining my passions just felt right, but the coolest part about developing my knowledge as a creative director was that I got to do it in spaces I was already familiar with. Creating in the dance industry without actually dancing helped me discover that even though I'm focused on this new, creative role, I can still maintain my deep connection with dance.

I've spent the last four years continuing down the creative-direction path, developing artists, producing music videos, and marketing for friends. A favorite moment for me was working with Nya Bloom, a friend and upcoming artist who I convinced not only to create a short film for his first project, but also to hire me as a director.

After six months of brainstorming together, we pitched our ideas to an investor who loved them and granted us a budget. From there, I was hired as set designer, choreographer, stylist and director for the project, which granted me the opportunity to hire all my friends, from dancers and actors to DP and editors. We paid everyone their full rates and ran our production in succinct timing, wrapping everyone 30 to 60 minutes earlier than planned.

I was ecstatic to use all my skills from previous jobs as a dancer on set, and everything I had observed from my previous experiences, to put my skills to the test and produce a visual that turned out even better than we could've imagined.

Edgin getting comfortable in the directors' seat (Avo Guedekelian, courtesy Edgin)

Dancing to My Own Beat

I pride myself in not underpaying or overworking dancers and (subtly) brag about being the person to book you for a 12-hour day, release you ahead of schedule, and still pay you your full day rate. It's really important to me, as someone who has been in the positions I'm now hiring for, to make sure the talent is as comfortable and happy as possible.

As I've gained more experience in my role as a creative director and taking on artist development, I've realized that having a dance background made finding success in these nondancing roles so much easier. So, whether you choose to join a prestigious company as a full-time dancer or become a freelance creative director who dances whenever they feel like it, just know that dance is a tool that can help you achieve success in spaces you may have never imagined.

I'm so grateful for my now 21 years of dance experience for introducing me to my true calling in life. There was never a moment wasted, and I can dance to the beat of my own drum now.

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