Janet Collins, in La Gioconda, at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Janet Collins was one of the first successful African-American (black) ballerinas in the late 1930s and 40s who paved way for other black ballerinas and dark skinned ballerinas of color. I am distressed by the fact that her original choreography for her solo tours were poorly recorded by historians (while all other ballerinas and choregraphers, who happened to be white, were greatly documented, recorded, and archived). Typical.
Janet Collins (March 7, 1917 in New Orleans, Louisiana – May 28, 2003 in Fort Worth, Texas) was a ballet dancer, choreographer, and teacher. She performed on Broadway, in films, and appeared frequently on television..
After moving to Los Angeles at the age of 4, Collins, received her first dance training at a Catholic community center. Collins studied primarily with Carmelita Maracci, Lester Horton, and Adolph Bolm, who were a few ballet teachers who accepted black students. .
Janet Collins was one of the few classically trained Black dancers of her generation. In 1951 she won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for her work in Cole Porter’s Out of This World. She also performed in Aida, Carmen, and was the first Black ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. She could not tour in parts of the Deep South due to her race. In later life she taught dance.
Janet Collins was among the pioneers of black ballet dancing and paved the way for others to follow. (Arthur Mitchell, for example, joined the New York City Ballet in the year Collins retired.) In 1932, aged 15, she auditioned with success, for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but as she was required to paint her face and skin white in order to be able to perform she did not join the company. In 1948, she moved to New York and got the chance to dance her own choreography on a shared program at the 92nd Street YMHA. .
Janet Collins struggled time and again against racism, which did not spare the world of professional ballet dancing. Not many African-American dancers and performers achieved the successful career she was able to attain. In 1951, Janet Collins became the first African American to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Marian Anderson, the first to sing there, did not perform until 1955.
Janet Collins’ dance reputation today resides primarily in her role in breaking the colour barrier; the constraints on Black classical dancers were too strong for her to have a vibrant performing career. However, her original choreography, which she performed in solo tours, was clearly of note, although few records survive. In her late forties she retired, turning to religion and finding comfort as an oblate in the Benedictine order. She was also an accomplished painter. Janet Collins died in 2003 at the age of 86, in Fort Worth, Texas. In recognition of her great work and dedication, her renowned cousin Carmen De Lavallade established the Janet Collins Fellowship which would honor aspiring talented ballet dancers.
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