• Rachel R

Janet Collins - First Black Prima Ballerina

Janet Collins was born on March 7, 1917 in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1921, at the age of four, Janet and her family moved to Los Angeles, California. At the age of 10 Janet began to study dance at a Catholic community center. Janet moved on to study dance under Carmelita Maracci, one of the few teachers who would teach Black students. Her parents were not super thrilled about her studying dance and encouraged her to study painting as it seemed to offer better opportunities for Black people than dance. She studied art at Los Angeles City College, but dance was where her heart was.

In 1932 she prepared and executed an audition for Leonide Massine and the De Basil Ballet Russe Company, she was only 15. Once she finished her audition the ballerinas that were watching broke out in applause. Though she was offered a place in the Company she ultimately turned it down. She turned it down because she was told that if she accepted the offer to join the company she would have to dance in white face to hide her race.

Despite the racism and prejudice she faced she kept performing. In her teens she danced in vaudeville shows, and in 1940 she made her theatrical debut by being the principal dancer in both “Run Little Chillun” and “The Mikado Swing” productions in Los Angeles. By 1943 Janet was part of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and performed in the musical film Stormy Weather and in 1946 Janet and the rest of the Company also performed in the film Thrill of Brazil. In 1949 Dance Magazine named Janet “the most outstanding debutante of the season”.

In 1950 she performed as principal dancer in Cole Porter’s production of, “Out of this World”. During that performance Zachary Solov observed her talent and it led him to invite her to dance with the Metropolitan Company as Prima Ballerina. Most of what Janet accomplished was history making but this is when she really broke barriers. She was the first Black prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera. She stayed at the Met until 1954.

After Janet left the Met she did some solo touring but landed on teaching dance. She taught at a few ballet schools, including School of American Ballet and even spent some time teaching dance to help rehabilitate people. In 1974 she retired to Seattle and began painting.

She passed away at 86 on May 28th, 2003 in Fort Worth, Texas.

**Information Sourced from www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/ and www.atlantaballet.com and https://www.nypl.org/blog/2012/02/14/celebrating-janet-collins-dance **

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