The Swans of Harlem, Karen Valby

The Magnificent Dance of ‘The Swans of Harlem’

In her dance history book The Swans of Harlem, author Karen Valby structures a magnificent, wide-ranging, complex narrative that’s both engaging and emotional.

The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History
Karen Valby
April 2024

History is, by its very nature, subjective. That results in some parts of history being overlooked or lost. When Lydia Abarca-Mitchell’s daughter Daniella wanted to celebrate Black History Month by telling the story of her mother’s career as a ballet dancer, every source she consulted identified Misty Copeland as the first Black ballerina.

That inspired Abarca-Mitchell and four other Dance Theatre of Harlem alumnae—Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Marcia Sells, and Karlya Shelton-Benjamin—to restore their rightful legacy. This led to Karen Valby’s extraordinary book The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History.

The five women featured in the book came from different social and economic backgrounds, but they all passionately loved ballet as youngsters and wanted to be professional ballet dancers. However, in the 1960s, Black dancers were scarce in ballet classes and were rarely hired by ballet companies. Even the most talented Black ballet dancers were largely excluded because they didn’t fit the White European visual norms of classical dance; Sells’ mother Mamie, watching her teenage daughter perform in the corps de ballet of The Nutcracker, heard another audience member complaining about the “dirty snowflake”. Other Black ballet dancers were encouraged, subtly and not so subtly, to pursue contemporary or modern dance instead.

Arthur Mitchell was one of the very few Black principal dancers in an American ballet company, and he started a ballet school for children in 1968 in Harlem, where he grew up. That school was the starting point for Dance Theatre of Harlem, where the five Swans met. “Because children deserve role models who show them what is possible,” Valby explains, “[Mitchell] simultaneously established the first permanent Black professional ballet company. Art is activism. Let the gorgeous lines of his dancers’ bodies serve as fists in the air.”

All the women reveled in the opportunity to dance professionally in a high-profile company. But they each had a complicated relationship with Mitchell. As both artistic director and executive director of the company, he controlled every aspect of its operations and expected complete commitment from its members. Unfortunately, this regularly manifested itself in colorism, body shaming, and perceived unfairness in casting. The women loved Mitchell as an artist and felt privileged to be part of his creation while simultaneously despising his narcissism, mercurial moods, and verbal abuse. Dance Theatre of Harlem is groundbreaking, but it took a tremendous toll on many participants under Mitchell’s direction.

The bonds between the five dancers were part of what made them stay with Dance Theatre of Harlem even through difficult times. Those deep relationships sustained them when they left the company or left dance entirely and made the challenging transition into other lives and careers. When the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown happened, they started reconnecting weekly on Zoom and formed the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council, named after the location of the company’s first studio. They shared their stories – some revealing events they hadn’t discussed before – and collectively constructed the narrative at the heart of The Swans of Harlem.

Interestingly, Valby is not a dance writer. She’s a magazine feature writer best known for her work in Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair. Some in the insular world of dance journalism might raise their eyebrows at an outsider telling this particular story – and, indeed, will probably clutch their metaphorical pearls at some of Valby’s phrasing, such as her description of dancer Ann Reinking’s powerful legs as “Trans Ams”.

But Valby is the ideal writer for The Swans of Harlem precisely because she’s not part of that world and its self-referential, sometimes impenetrable discourse. Valby knows enough about ballet to understand the Swans’ experiences, but more importantly, she knows how to structure a wide-ranging, complex narrative that’s both engaging and emotional. Her confident, well-informed writing is accessible to a wide audience of readers who might know little about ballet or dance.

The book’s theme is the five protagonists reclaiming their places in a history that largely ignored their achievements. One of the most admirable features of The Swans of Harlem is how prominently and proudly each dancer’s voice speaks within the narrative. Long direct quotations from all five women are interspersed throughout, along with quotes from friends, family members, and colleagues. The five Swans also have their own section of acknowledgments: a fitting recognition of this being their story and their right to claim ownership of it.

The Swans of Harlem is magnificent. It accomplishes its goal of chronicling an overlooked history while being extremely well-written and giving voice and presence to a marginalized group. This story needed to be told, and Valby and the Swans have collectively created something marvelous by telling it.

RATING 9 / 10