Raven Wilkinson, a classical dancer, was the first African-American woman to perform with a major ballet
company, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a company she first saw perform
when she was five, died December 17. She was 83. Wilkinson began ballet lessons at the age of nine. At nineteen, she
auditioned twice for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo but was turned down
both times because she was black. Determined, she auditioned again at twenty and was accepted, though on a
six-week trial basis. She performed so well that she was a frequent soloist.
She remained with the company for six years, often having to conceal her
race when the company toured the segregated South and stayed in “whites-
Once it was more widely known that she was black, the Ku Klux
Klan disrupted a ballet performance in Montgomery, Alabama, calling out and
demanding to know which dancer was ‘the n—–!’Partly because of the near-constant threat of racial discrimination and the
pressures it placed on her and the company itself, Wilkinson left the Ballet
Russe de Monte Carlo in 1961 and auditioned for other major ballet
companies, but, despite her talent, she was not accepted by any one of them.
Profoundly discouraged, she taught dancing in the Bahamas for a short time
and later entered a convent in Fond-du-lac, Wisconsin, choosing to follow a
spiritual path that had always attracted her.
She left the convent after six
months, aware more strongly than ever that she was meant to dance.
She moved to the Netherlands after having been invited to perform there.
She performed successfully for seven years with their National Ballet. At 38,
she retired from dance and returned to the United States. Her retirement was
short lived. She was invited to dance with the New York City Opera, and she
did so, finding a new home there, dancing for them until 1985. She was 50.
She remained, however, with the New York City Opera as a character dancer
and actor and maintained that status until 2011.
Much beloved and an inspiration to many, Wilkinson mentored Misty
Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a principal dance with
the American Ballet Theater.