The Unofficial Black History Book By; Keron Davis || Chapter Two

Janet Collins (1917–2003)

Janet Faye Collins became the first African American prima ballerina and one of the very few prominent black women in American Classical ballet. And the first black prima ballerina to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York City, New York.

She broke one of the last major color barriers in Classical Ballet.

Janet Collins was born on March 2nd, 1917 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her mother was a seamstress and her father was a tailor. They moved to Los Angeles, California in 1921 when she was four years old.

She started taking private dancing lessons at a Catholic community center and ironically, Collin’s parents urged her to study painting rather than dance. Because at that time, art seemed to offer more opportunities to gifted African Americans than Classical dance.

Collins did studied art on a scholarship at Los Angeles City College and later at the Los Angeles Art Center School.

But she continued her dance training and attracted the attention of Adolph Bohm, Carmelita Maracci, and Mia Slavenska. All prominent dance instructors who agreed to work with her. She continued her dance training with Carmelita Maracci, who was one of the few dance teachers during the time to accept black students.

At the age of 15, Janet prepared to audition for Leonide Massine and the De Basil Ballet Russe Company. The company was performing in Los Angeles during its American tour and advertised for an aspiring young dancer to audition for the company.

When it was Janet’s turn, when was one of the best to audition. She moved with such beauty and grace, all the other ballerinas applauded her.

Massine saw her talent and accepted her into the company. But only under one condition…

He told her she would have to paint her face white for performances.

Going further into my notes, she was told that she would either need “Specials Roles” created for her or dance in white face to disguise the fact that she was black.

Collins left the audition in tears and vowed to perfect her art so that race would not be an issue.

In an exchange quoted in U.S. News & World Report, She responded, “I thought talent mattered, not color.”

Collins found cold reception in the professional ballet, despite her training. However, she didn’t let that set her back and she continued to perform.

In the 1930’s, when she was still in her teenage years, she performed as an Adagio dancer in Vaudeville shows.

In 1940, she became the principal dancer for the Los Angeles musical Production of “Run Little Chillun” and “The Mikado in Swing”. At this time, she worked with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.

In 1943, she performed in the musical film “Stormy Weather” and in 1946, she appeared in the film “Thrill of Brazil”

In 1949, Collins made her New York debut after performing her own Choreography on a shared program at the 92md Street NY. In the same year, and after two more performances, Dance Magazine named her “The most outstanding debutante of the season”

Collins gave her first Prima ballerina performance on November 3rd, 1948 at the Las Palmas Theater in Los Angeles, which left critics hailing her as a unique performer.

In 1951, She was noticed by Zachary Solov, the ballet master of the Metropolitan Opera House in a Broadway Production of Cole Porter’s “Out of this World” Solov then invited Collins to join the Metropolitan Company when she was 34.

November 13th, 1951 Collins broke a color barrier after her performance ‘Aida’. She was the first African American Prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera after a year of joining the corps de ballet. It marked the first time a black artist had joined the permanent company.

Unfortunately, Collins faced racism on the road as the company toured to Southern cities, despite her success in New York.

Race laws kept her off the stage, and sometimes her parts were performed by understudies who were white.

She remained at the Met until 1954. She then would go on to tour across the United States and Canada. She then began teaching ballet which included using dance in the rehabilitation of the handicapped.

She also taught at the School of American Ballet, San Francisco Ballet School, and the Harkness House.

Janet retired from performing and teaching in 1974. She spent the last years of her life painting religious subjects in her studio in Seattle.

Janet Collins died on May 28th, 2003 in Fort Worth, Texas at 86 years old.

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