Before Misty Copeland made history as the first African-American woman to become a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Janet Collins set the stage in 1951 as the first Black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Though Collins broke down barriers, she did not do so without confronting racism along the way. In 1932, while in her late teenage years, she auditioned with Leonide Massine for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. He was more than happy to hire her, but only under one condition - she had to cover her face and body in white makeup in order to perform. Collins refused his offer, instead choosing to dance with Katherine Dunham’s company.
By 1947, she secured her first solo concert in Los Angeles, receiving rave reviews for her performance. She would repeat this success in New York City, with critic John Martin describing her in The New York Times as the “most exciting young dancer who has flashed across the current scene in a long time”. Soon after, she was hired to dance on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Out of This World, taking the role that would inspire the Metropolitan Opera to hire her for their 1951 production of Aida.
Collins performed additional roles at the Met in Carmen, La Gioconda and Samson and Delilah, eventually retiring in 1954 to focus on teaching and choreography. She disappeared from the public eye in her later life, during which she devoted herself to completing religious paintings.
In June 2014, Karyn Parsons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce an animated short film about Collins’ journey. The finished product, entitled Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story, is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Cuban ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of the Cuban National Ballet, Alicia Alonso riveted audiences as the leading lady in several classical and Romantic ballets, particularly known for her portrayals of Giselle and Carmen.
This is all the more notable considering that Alonso was diagnosed with a detached retina at the age of 20. Although she underwent three surgical procedures to repair the problem, it was concluded that she would never have peripheral vision and would suffer from partial blindness in one eye.
After her final surgery, she was ordered to lie in bed motionless for an entire year. Her husband, Fernando Alonso, would sit with her on a daily basis, and they’d use their fingers to learn each movement for the great dancing roles in classical ballet. She later recalled that it was there - “blinded, motionless, flat on her back” - that she taught herself the role of Giselle.
Without her peripheral vision, Alonso had to train her dancing partners to be exactly where she needed them, when she needed them. She worked with set designers to install different-colored spotlights to guide her movement, overcoming her handicap to receive rave reviews.
As he had nothing in particular to do he merely stretched out his bones by placing his left foot on a nearby table, reachingg his hands forward to his toes, holding onto them for a few seconds before he did other ballet-dancer-like stretching tasks.