Ballet, a world of grace, precision, and ethereal beauty, has historically been perceived as a predominantly Eurocentric art form. However, the dance world has evolved, with artists from diverse backgrounds shattering preconceived notions and redefining the art of ballet. Among these groundbreaking talents are Black ballerinas who have not only showcased their extraordinary skills but have also been instrumental in making the world of ballet more inclusive.
What makes these Black ballerinas so impactful is not just their remarkable, physical talent on stage. It is also the unfortunate burden they all take on in trying to uplift other ballerinas who look like them. Ballet’s defining characteristics are the complete opposite of what racism and stereotypes have painted Blackness out to be. This makes it so these individuals have to be a lot more than just talented at this incredibly demanding art form. They must also be perseverant. However, these Black ballerinas have shown even more than perseverance. Each of them comes from their unique backstory and has made a name for themselves through their passion and determination.
Here are ten well-known Black ballerinas ordered by whom you really need to know and why. Regardless of the ranking, each of them has left an indelible mark on the dance world.
9. Ashley Murphy: A Versatile Ballerina Opening Doors for Others
Ashley Murphy is a ballerina who has gained recognition for her grace and artistry. Her performances embody the beauty and strength of ballet, and her presence on stage inspires young dancers.
Murphy’s trek into ballet started with early training and a deep love for dance, leading her to receive a formal ballet education. Her professional ballet career soared when she joined the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), celebrated for its mission to promote diversity in dance. At DTH, Murphy established herself as a remarkable talent, celebrated for her powerful and emotionally charged performances. Her repertoire spans a broad spectrum, from classical to contemporary ballet, and her exceptional technical precision and artistic depth garnered acclaim.
Murphey’s talents have led her to dance at the White House and be showcased on TV screens several times. She continues to work offstage as an advocate for more representation and opportunities for BIPOC in ballet. Her advocacy for diversity and inclusivity has made her an influential figure in the dance world, as she continues to captivate as a part of the Washington Ballet.
8. Chyrstyn Fentroy: A Captivating Ballerina Challenging Stereotypes
Chyrstyn Fentroy is a highly accomplished and celebrated American ballerina from the Boston area. She discovered her passion for dance at a young age. From there, she received her formal training at the Boston Ballet School where her remarkable talent quickly set her apart as a dancer to watch. Fentroy’s career reached a significant milestone when she joined the Boston Ballet, where she continued to develop her skills and gain recognition for her outstanding performances.
Fentroy’s repertoire as a dancer spans a wide range of classical and contemporary roles. What makes her roles in these varieties of shows so worthy of acclaim is her powerful and emotionally charged performances. Beyond this remarkable work on stage, she has been a vocal advocate for increased diversity in the world of ballet. Fentroy’s advocacy efforts extend to the mentorship and support of aspiring dancers of color. She does not stop there as she has consistently used her platform to challenge stereotypes and push for greater inclusivity in the dance world. Her career, recognized by captivating performances and her commitment to promoting diversity in ballet, has earned her recognition as an inspiring and influential figure in the field of dance.
7. Courtney Lavine: A Brilliant Ballerina Fighting for Representation
Courtney Lavine is a versatile artist whose performances showcase her skill through a unique blend of classical and contemporary ballet. Her journey into ballet started in Los Angeles where she was born. Here she received training in the Balanchine style of ballet at the prestigious School of American Ballet. It was quickly clear in Lavine’s youth that she was a natural talent. Her career took a significant step forward when she joined the New York City Ballet (NYCB), one of the world’s foremost ballet companies. Lavine’s performances with the NYCB showcased her remarkable technical precision and artistic depth as she took on a wide range of classical and contemporary roles.
Following her tenure with NYCB, Courtney Lavine joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH), an acclaimed group committed to diversity. This move allowed her to continue her ballet career while aligning with a company that shares her passion for challenging racial disparities in ballet. Lavine’s repertoire encompasses a diverse range of roles, from classic ballets like Swan Lake to more modern choreography. Beyond her incredible talent on stage, she has become an advocate for increased diversity and representation in the ballet world. Her journey as a dancer and her tireless advocacy efforts have made her an influential and inspiring figure in the realm of ballet.
6. Ingrid Silva: A Skillful Ballerina Committed to Diversity
Ingrid Silva, a Brazilian ballerina, has made a significant impact after joining a ballet company in the U.S. She was born on December 9, 1988, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she started doing ballet and quickly excelled. Silva’s professional ballet career took off when she joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem. This renowned company is known for promoting diversity in ballet and has paved the way for black dancers to shine on the world stage. Here she gained recognition for her extraordinary technical skill and versatility, performing a wide range of roles in both classical and contemporary ballet. Her association with the company aligned with its mission to challenge racial disparities in ballet.
In addition to her accomplished career on stage, Ingrid Silva has emerged as a prominent advocate for inclusivity in ballet. She has used her platform to champion the cause of diversity in the arts and has been vocal about the need for greater representation of dancers from diverse backgrounds. Silva’s work extends beyond advocacy, as she has been actively involved in philanthropic initiatives and educational outreach programs to make ballet more accessible to underserved communities. She continues to inspire today as an advocate and as the First Dancer of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
5. Precious Adams: A Ballerina Advocating for Inclusivity
Precious Adams, born in Washington D.C. in 1993, is a highly accomplished ballerina renowned for her undeniable talent, versatility, and dedication. Her career consists of a remarkable journey from her early training at the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., to her groundbreaking move to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia. This was not a common move made by American dancers. But it was successful as her time in Moscow allowed her to refine her technique. Adams was also able to gain a deeper understanding of classical Russian ballet, setting the stage for a remarkable professional career.
Adams made significant contributions to the dance world through her association with the English National Ballet, where she excelled in both classical and contemporary ballet. Her performances have been marked by technical excellence, artistry, and emotional depth. Adam’s repertoire includes a wide range of roles, from classical ballets like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker to modern choreography.
Beyond her extraordinary talent on stage, Adams has become a prominent advocate for diversity in ballet. She achieved this by using her platform to inspire young dancers from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, she has contributed to the ongoing conversation about inclusivity in the field of dance. Her commitment to work on and off stage has garnered her numerous awards and a lasting legacy.
4. Aesha Ash: An Inspiring Ballerina Dedicated to Social Change
Aesha Ash is a former New York City Ballet dancer known for her exceptional dancing talent and her advocacy work for Black ballerinas. She was born in Rochester, New York, in 1977 and proved early on that she was a ballet child prodigy. Aesha Ash’s professional ballet career was marked by her work with some of the most prestigious ballet companies. The New York City Ballet is the main company of note she worked with. Here she was known by other dancers and audiences for her graceful and technically proficient performances
Ash showed the world she also wanted to challenge stereotypes and promote diversity in the ballet world. She launched The Swan Dreams Project in 2008. It is a powerful photo and video series that challenges the negative stereotypes associated with young BIPOC. The project features images of Ash in her ballet attire in urban environments, aiming to inspire young dancers from underserved communities to pursue their dreams in ballet.
The Swan Dreams Project has garnered international attention and continues to serve as a source of inspiration for aspiring dancers. More recently, she became a founding member of the School of American Ballet’s diversity committee. And as of 2020, she became the Ballet’s first full-time Black faculty member.
3. Michaela DePrince: A Resilient Ballerina Triumphing Over All
Born in Sierra Leone, Michaela DePrince’s story is one of triumph over adversity. She was born Mabinty Bangura in Sierra Leone on January 6, 1995, during the country’s civil war. She lost her parents at a young age and was placed in an orphanage. Life in the orphanage was challenging, and she faced discrimination because of her vitiligo, a skin condition that causes the loss of skin pigmentation. However, in 1999 she was adopted by a couple in New Jersey and given a home of love and new opportunities. It is here she saw a photo of a ballerina in a magazine and became inspired
Flash forward to later in her life, DePrince is a ranked ballet soloist and has captivated audiences with her powerful and emotive performances. Her story was made famous in the ballet documentary First Position in 2011. Since then she has taken on other feats like becoming an author of multiple books and advocating for more representation in ballet. DePrince remains an inspiration with all she has achieved and overcame before age 30. Her journey from war orphan to accomplished ballerina is a testament to her incredible talent and relentless determination. She continues to dance as a second soloist since 2021 with the Boston Ballet.
2. Lauren Anderson: A History-Making Ballerina
Lauren Anderson is a highly acclaimed dancer and a history-maker in the world of ballet. Anderson was born on February 19, 1965, in Houston, Texas. She started ballet at a young age and was met with the challenge of being one of the very few Black students. However, this never stopped her at any point. Anderson joined the Houston Ballet Academy and later the Houston Ballet’s main company.
Later in 1990, Lauren Anderson achieved a historic milestone by being promoted to the rank of principal dancer at the Houston Ballet. This made her the first Black woman to hold the prestigious position of principal dancer at a major American ballet company. Her promotion was a groundbreaking moment in the world of ballet and symbolized a significant step toward greater diversity and inclusion in the art form.
This was just the beginning of her illustrious career marked by numerous awards and accolades, including recognition by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Anderson is now retired with a career spanning over two decades. However, she still has a lasting legacy on ballet through her advocacy for more diversity and the future she paved for Black ballet dancers.
1. Misty Copeland: The World’s Most Famous Black Ballerina
Misty Copeland is perhaps the most famous Black ballerina of today. She started ballet later than most at the age of 13 and immediately wowed instructors with her natural talent, despite her difficult childhood. It is her impressive athleticism, precision, and way of displaying intense emotions that resonate with those who observe her performances. In 2007, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the third Black female soloist and the first in two decades at the American Ballet Theatre. Later in 2015, she achieved another historic milestone by being promoted to the rank of principal dancer, making her the first Black woman to hold this prestigious position in ABT’s 75-year history.
Copeland is not just known for captivating audiences on stage. She also works off-stage through authoring and working with initiatives to advocate for more representation of Black ballerinas. Copeland has shown that she does not want to be the sole representative of Black ballerinas. She has made a name for herself through her grace and poise and intends to bring other Black ballerinas to the top with her.
Honorable Mention: Arthur Mitchell — The Pioneer of Black Representation in Ballet
Arthur Mitchell was a groundbreaking ballet dancer, choreographer, and pioneer in promoting diversity in ballet. Mitchell was born on March 27, 1934, in Harlem, New York City. He displayed an early interest in dance and received his initial training at the High School of Performing Arts in New York. Mitchell’s talent and dedication to ballet quickly became evident. He eventually earned a scholarship to the School of American Ballet (SAB).
In 1956, Arthur Mitchell made history by becoming the first Black male dancer to join a major American ballet company when he was invited to join the New York City Ballet. His groundbreaking presence at NYCB helped to challenge racial barriers in ballet and open doors for future generations of dancers of color. Mitchell’s incredible technical skills and stage presence earned him a reputation as one of the most remarkable dancers of his generation. He excelled in both classical and contemporary ballet roles and worked with legendary choreographers such as George Balanchine.
In 1969, Arthur Mitchell founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. DTH was a groundbreaking ballet company that aimed to provide opportunities for dancers of diverse backgrounds, including black dancers, in a traditionally white-dominated field. Under Mitchell’s artistic direction, DTH achieved international acclaim for its exceptional performances and contributions to the promotion of diversity in dance. He is still impacting ballet dancers after he died in 2018 through his lasting legacy.