African-American Voices in Ballet: 3 Books by Black Ballerinas

Photo of three autobiographies by African-American ballerinas.
African-Americans have a rich and beautiful heritage in the ballet world...

But it's no secret that ballet culture can be unfriendly — to put it lightly — to people who do not fit the preconceived (and often unfair) ballet mold.

Racial discrimination has been, and unfortunately continues to be, a significant problem in the ballet world.

Nevertheless, many Black dancers have left their mark on ballet history.

But the reality of racial barriers in ballet cannot, and should not, be erased when telling the stories of Black ballet dancers. 

One way for the ballet world to fight against and eliminate these barriers is to listen carefully to, learn from, and amplify the voices of Black dancers.

In the spirit of amplifying and learning from Black voices, here are three books that tell the stories of Black ballerinas...

#1) Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland is well-known as the first African-American woman to become a principal dancer with the renowned American Ballet Theatre.

When she first wrote her memoir, Life In Motion, Copeland was a soloist. But later editions of the book contain an afterword describing her rise to principal.

Beginning ballet at a community center at the age of thirteen, Misty Copeland is not your typical ballerina.

She faces several unique challenges in her journey to a professional ballet career, including:

  • A late start. Most ballerinas begin their training in early childhood, but Copeland takes her first ballet class at the age of thirteen.
  • Tumultuous family life. As one of several siblings raised by a single mother who moves frequently, Copeland's home life is often at odds with her ballet training.
  • Racial tension. As a Black woman, Copeland faces the added challenge of breaking down racial barriers in a historically (and often stubbornly) white art form.

Copeland dreams of becoming a principal dancer with ABT, not only for herself, but also to show the world that ballet is for people of all shapes, sizes, and skin colors.

One mantra she carries for why she does what she does is: This is for the little brown girls.

Copeland's story is an inspirational read for anyone who has ever felt out of place in the ballet world.

#2) Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince

You may know Michaela DePrince from the documentary First Position, which follows three young ballet dancers through their pre-professional training and participation in the Youth America Grand Prix. 

Michaela, now a soloist with the Dutch National Opera and Ballet, wrote her memoir, Taking Flightin collaboration with her adoptive mother, Elaine DePrince.

Born into war-torn Sierra Leone and orphaned at a young age, DePrince's story is one of unprecedented strength and resilience. 

Throughout her time in Africa, Michaela faces social ostracizing due to a skin condition called vitiligo, which causes her skin to have spots. 

After her biological father is killed by a militant group of government rebels, Michaela (then known by the name Mabinty Bangura) and her mother are forced to live with Michaela's abusive uncle.

When Michaela's mother dies of a fever, her uncle abandons her at an orphanage.

At the orphanage, she stumbles across a page from a magazine, featuring a beautiful photo of a ballerina en pointe.

Michaela decides that one day she will be like the ballerina on the page.

At the age of four, an American family — the DePrinces — adopt Michaela and when she shows them the page from the magazine, they put her in dance classes. 

This incredible journey, from war orphan to ballerina, is a page-turner and must-read.

#3) Night's Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins by Janet Collins and Yael Tamar Lewin

Night's Dancer is a particularly unique book because it is part personal memoir, part scholarly biography.

The first chapters contain Janet Collins's unfinished autobiography, after which dance scholar Yael Lewin presents a more traditional biography pieced together from sources such as library archives and interviews with both Collins herself and her friends and family.

Lewin describes Collins as "an unshakeable imaginative force."

Collins, born in 1917, begins her ballet training as a child, and as a teenager, she auditions for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo.

Collins describes how, as the only Black person in the entire theater, she feels incredibly out of place at the audition. But when she begins to dance, she forgets those feelings and dances with her whole heart — and the bustle of the theater on that busy audition day falls quiet.

Everyone erupts into applause when she finishes her dance.

She is accepted into the company, but when she is asked to paint her skin white for performances, she declines the offer.

She goes on to dance in the Dunham Company, to choreograph, to perform on Broadway, and to become the first black ballerina to dance in New York City's Metropolitan Opera House.

Night's Dancer tells the story of a remarkably talented woman who spends her life creating remarkable work of all kinds — it also paints a picture of the unique struggles that African-Americans have historically faced (and continue to face) in the ballet community.

For a more complete list of books that cover the topic of African-American heritage in ballet, click here.