The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

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Release Date: 
April 30, 2024
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“That same summer, Sheila Rohan traveled by bus, ferry, and two different subway lines to get from Staten Island to Harlem,” writes author Karen Valby about these pioneering Black ballerinas and the determination they needed to succeed in a field where few had ventured before them. “Her sister Nanette had sent her looking for a man named Arthur Mitchell, who was putting together what she understood to be a little theatre group for Black people. When Sheila arrived, weary from the commute, having arranged with family beforehand to watch her three young children, she was taken aback by the scene at the church. Oh my God, they're real ballerinas, she remembers thinking.”

Rohan is one of the Black Swans, Black ballerinas who broke through to fame under the guidance of Arthur Mitchell, who with Karel Shook, founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) in 1969, the first African American classical ballet company in the U.S.

The stories of each as told by Valby, an Austin, Texas-based author, in her The Swans of Harlem, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, are riveting and bringing the five women—Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton, and Marcia Sells—together [provides a fascinating look into what was momentous and nearly lost to time.

Abarca had quit ballet at 15, tired of giving herself over to what seemed like a hopeless cause. But when she heard about Arthur Mitchell and his new ballet school, she was intrigued enough that despite having a scholarship to Fordham University she so immersed herself into Mitchell’s vision of a successful Black classical ballet company that she failed two of her classes because she was busy practicing. So instead of being the first in her family to go to college with hopes of ultimately becoming a doctor, she rose to fame as a Black prima ballerina, the first Black to appear on the covers of Dance Magazine and Essence.

The Swans prevailed against the odds to perform for such luminaries as Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, and even the Queen of England. It was no easy task requiring not only a tremendous amount of talent but also a will to succeed in a world where no previous Black ballerinas had much luck despite their commitment and skill.

McKinney-Griffith, who started taking ballet lessons at Carnegie Hall when she was three and was attending Julliard when she met Mitchell by chance at the Harlem School of Arts on the day he was taking stock of possible studio space. Soon she was caught up in his orbit., juggling a full course load at Juilliard with Mitchell. Six-hour plus daily rehearsals. Exhausted, Mitchell gave her an ultimatum to the effect that she either was going to dance for DTH or Julliard. No ifs, and, or buts. She needed to make up her mind, if she stayed with DTH, she would be disappointing her parents and wasting all that money they’d spent on her tuition. She chose the less safe path. She would always keep in mind Mitchell’s words: “Always walk on stage like you are somebody.”

Mitchell was a tough taskmaster, a man who always kept upping the ante. McKinney Griffith recalls him making statements like “You’ve got to do it better tomorrow. You're fat today, lose that weight for tomorrow.” For him, they were never good enough—they always had to be better, to be perfect. But his commitment to perfection propelled the Swans into doing the best they could and even more.

After a performance, Marcia Sells read and reread a quote from a piece written by Clive Barnes, the theater critic for The New York Times, who four months prior to Mitchell founding of The Dance Theatre of Harlem bemoaned the lack of opportunities for Black children to learn classic ballet and ultimately to perform.

It wasn’t because they didn’t put in the work. Sells was so into ballet that at age ten, she had transitioned to pointe work in her ballet classes. It was an experience she describes as similar to the ancient Chinese custom of binding women’s feet to produce a mincing walk thought to be attractive by men centuries ago. “This tight little box squeezing your feet. It's all blisters and bruises and calluses and losing your toenails . . . It's all incredibly painful. But you start building up strength in your ankles and calves and thighs. You get some momentum and you're able to stand on pointe. And do a pirouette. You feel the actual physics of it all. Suddenly you feel light. Like oh my gosh, I'm now a ballerina.”

Despite the glow of success, Valby points out that all the successes of these women didn’t follow them throughout the rest of their lives. They often were forgotten or overlooked in history.

Now history has found them again.