Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Prima Ballerina Janet Collins
Many years before Misty Copeland was given the chance to be the principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, there was Janet Collins. The cousin of another accomplished dancer, Carmen De Lavallade, Janet broke many barriers for dancers. She was the first Black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, and while her accomplishments were major, she didn’t receive the accolades she should have because of her race. Still, for the time, Janet’s opportunities were groundbreaking and have inspired new generations of dancers, including Copeland. Check out five things you should know about prima ballerina Janet Collins.
Revisiting a favorite: Dancer Janet Collins, in a 1949 photo by Carl Van Vechten that I was pleased to include in my first book, Vintage Black Glamour. In 1951, she would become the first Black prima ballerina at The Metropolitan Opera. Her cousin @CarmendeLavallade once said “Janet was rather like Auntie Mame… she’d just breeze into town because she danced with Katherine Dunham's company. And when she came into town, it was really something – and then she’d breeze out again. She was a fascinating woman.” #vintageblackglamour #vbgbook #dancers #JanetCollins #CarlVanVechten
She Started Out as a Successful Painter
Before making dancing her primary focus, Janet was also quite the talented painter. In fact, when her interest in dance increased, her family encouraged her to instead try and put her energy into painting, as there were more opportunities available for Blacks in visual arts when compared to ballet. Still, she studied dance while in school on an art scholarship. Eventually, her interests in ballet would become her focus of attention, but later in life, after retiring from dancing, she would get back to painting.
She Danced With Fellow Pioneers of Dance
When Janet became deeply focused on dance, she went on to study with famed concert performer Carmelita Maracci. Known for her fusion of ballet and Spanish dance techniques, Maracci was one of only a few teachers willing to take Black students. Janet was also able to show off her moves alongside the likes of Adolph Bolm, Mia Slaven-ska, and Lester Horton. Horton is credited with being a contributor to modern dance and was a major influence for another iconic dancer, Alvin Ailey.
She Was Once Asked to Dance in Whiteface
While auditioning for the Ballet Russe in Los Angeles, Janet, a woman of an already fair complexion, was told that while her moves were great, her look was not. It was reportedly stated by those at Ballet Russe that she would need to dance in whiteface, something she refused to do. Despite being hurt immensely by her treatment (“I sat on the steps and I cried and I cried” she told the New York Times), Janet decided to train harder and better than most. Her hard work would pay off.
First Black Artist to Perform at the Met
As her career began to take off, Janet became the first Black person, man or woman, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She was hired to dance full-time in 1951. She made her mark four years before famed contralto Marian Anderson became the first African-American soloist to sing at the same opera house. She performed at the Met for three years, displaying her talents in La Gioconda, Samson and Delilah, Aida and Carmen.
Despite Dealing With Racism, Her Experience Was a Pioneering One
Her experience at the Met Opera was a pretty positive one compared to the experiences of dancers of color trying to make it during tense racial times. For instance, while dancers were usually segregated in terms of their dressing rooms, Janet’s dressing room was on the same floor as the rest of the dancers. Also, considering that Black dancers were often prohibited from being on stage with White performers, Janet was given an immense opportunity to be a prima ballerina, front and center. Still, she wasn’t able to avoid being barred from dancing in the South with her White colleagues. An understudy would have to fill in for her.