Carmen de Lavallade was born to Creole parents in Los Angeles, California in 1931. But was raised by her aunt Adele. Her aunt was the owner of Hugh Gordon Book Shop, one of the first African American history bookstores on Central Avenue.
She grew up very close to her cousin, Janet Collins. Janet was also a dancer who inspired Carmen to pursue a career in dance. Even though she had a late start at the age of 14, by the time she was 16 she’d earned a scholarship to study with Lester Horton in his theatre in 1949. By 1950 she was a lead dancer and maintained that position until 1954.
Lester encouraged her to explore other forms of dance but ballet remained her first love.
During her 17th year, Lena Horne caught one of de Lavallade’s performances and helped her branch into the world of acting. She appeared in four movies throughout her career, including “Carmen Jones” in 1955.
Later she met Herbert Ross who asked de Lavallade to appear in “House of Flowers”, which he choreographed.
It was during this time that she met Geoffrey Holder, the man who would later become her husband. With Holder she completed her signature solo piece Come Sunday. He suggested dancing to a black spiritual.
In 1956, Carmen became the Prima ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera in 1956. She took the place of her cousin, Janet, who’d held the position before her.
The next year she and Geoffrey had a son.
Later in 1970, de Lavallade joined the Yale School of Drama as a choreographer and performer in residence. Eventually she became a full time professor.
As late as last year, at the age of 79, de Lavallade was still dancing and producing projects to teach young people about the history of dance.
Check out the video of Carmen telling her own story below: