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*Raven Wilkinson’s birth in 1935 is celebrated on this date. She was a Black ballet dancer (semi-retired) and actress.
From New York City, her mother was influential in pursuing ballet training for her. Wilkinson began studying with a well-known Russian dancer when she was nine. After being inspired by seeing Janet Collins on stage in the early 1950s, she left school in her teens to pursue ballet full-time. When the director of Ballet de Russe purchased Monte Carlo, her ballet school, the students were invited to try out for his company.
Racism made acceptance into the company unlikely, and fellow students discouraged her from auditioning. Yet after several tryouts, she was accepted on a six-week trial basis in 1955. Wilkinson (who had light skin) and her parents were told not to let the public know she was Black. During her first six weeks with the Ballet Russe and many times after, the company performed in locations throughout the segregated South, staying in segregated hotels and successfully keeping Wilkinson’s race a secret. On stage, Wilkinson was often required to wear white makeup. Two years after joining the Ballet Russe, she was barred from staying with her company in an Atlanta hotel. Wilkinson refused to lie when the hotel owner asked her outright whether she was Black.
Increasingly, racial discrimination became a problem for her professionally and personally. The company’s director prohibited her from dancing in certain towns and sent her to other cities where she could safely wait for the company’s arrival. After she had been with the Ballet Russe for several years achieving great dancing success, Wilkinson was told that she was unlikely to go any further in ballet and that she should consider leaving the company to start a school of African dance. Appalled by this suggestion and exhausted from the years of racism, Wilkinson left the company. After auditioning for other ballet companies and not being accepted, she stopped dancing for several years, taught ballet, and gave lectures/demonstrations. At one point, she was a guest teacher in the Bahamas for two weeks with a company managed by a former member of Ballet Russe.
She also joined a nunnery for about six months. In the mid-1960s, after performing in Washington, DC, with a member of Holland’s National Ballet, Wilkinson was invited to join that company. She went to Holland in the fall of 1967 and did not return to the US until 1974. Wilkinson’s acting credits include the role of Bloody Mary's Assistant in Broadways South Pacific 1987 and Malla in A Little Night Music 1990-1991. Wilkinson was a member of the New York City Opera, and today she can still be seen in many performances.
Misty Copeland has called Raven Wilkinson a mentor; her children's book, "The Firebird," was inspired by her relationship with Wilkinson. Wilkinson presented the 2014 Dance Magazine Award to Copeland in December of that year. In June 2015, Wilkinson received the 2015 Dance/USA Trustee Award.
Wilkinson's biography is included in Black Ballerina, a full-length documentary. The film tells the story of three Black ballerinas from the past: Wilkinson, Delores Brown, and Joan Myers Brown, and contrasts their experiences with those of three young Black dancers pursuing ballet careers. Raven Wilkinson died on December 17, 2018, at 83.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York