This unsung hero paved way for black ballerinas by refusing to pose as a white woman for dance roles

There are many unsung heroes in black history whose stories continue to be sidelined because of slavery, race and politics. Day in and out, history uncovers new details around these topics to help highlight significant figures who went through many hurdles to pave ways for black people in various fields. The story of Janet Collins is a typical example.

Collins, popularly called Jane, was the first African American to make it to Broadway as a ballerina.

Born during a period of riots, segregation and racism, Janet found solace in her love for ballet and slowly became the icon who broke the ‘no blacks allowed’ code.

At the early age of 4, Janet’s parents relocated to Los Angeles and after noticing her love for ballet, they started looking for private dance classes to enrol her. Finding dance instructors proved difficult as many of the white trainers refused to take in black students. After a while, her parents encouraged her to pursue an art course as it was one of the fields that accepted diversity and allowed African Americans to succeed.

At the age of ten, Janet was finally accepted and started dance classes at the Los Angeles Community Centre, where she exhibited pure talent and passion. She was accepted by three dance teachers Mia Slavenska, Adolph Bohm and Carmelita Maracci, who saw great skill in her and accepted dancers regardless of race.

In 1932, Janet, aged 16, auditioned for a dance role in a highly-prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo stage production. She was the only black person who auditioned for the position and had to deal with a lot of racism.  Although she got the part, she was required to paint herself white to avoid drawing attention to her blackness.

Because of this, Janet refused to join the company.

Janet was toughened by this experience and she braced for more similar situations. While trying to find her way to the big stage, Janet continued to dance in smaller productions and remained optimistic that she would one day perform on bigger stages like many white professional dancers.

By the 1940s, Janet became not only a household name in Los Angeles but also a lead dancer in several productions. She moved to New York in 1948, optimistic that her dream will come true.

In the same year, she managed to secure a slot where she performed her choreography. Her spectacular display soon saw her name spread like wildfire in New York, and many trooped in to watch her. She became a favourite and was featured in several films, TV shows and stage productions in New York.

By 1951, at the age of 34, Janet was given the prestigious role of the top ballerina at Metropolitan Opera, New York. The job made her the first black ballerina to perform there, to make it to the big stage and to become the most watched ballerina at the Opera.

With this success, she made history by paving way for diversity in ballet. In 1951, she won the coveted Donaldson Award as the best dancer on Broadway.

By 1954, Janet began teaching dancing and choreography in New York, training more black dancers who were inspired by her brave decision to break colour boundaries and make a name for herself.

Upon her retirement in 1974, at the age of 57, she spent the rest of her life focusing on arts and producing pieces that expressed religion and freedom.

-Photo- Lisa Pacino

She died at the age of 86 on May 28, 2003. In her honour, the Janet Collins foundation was founded in 2007 to support talented and dedicate black artists.


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