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Janet Collins was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and at the age of four moved with her family to Los Angeles, California, where Collins received her first dance training at a Catholic community center. She studied primarily with Carmelita Maracci, Lester Horton, and Adolph Bolm, who were among the few ballet teachers who accepted black students.In 1932, aged 15, Collins auditioned with success for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but as she was required to paint her face and skin white in order to be able to perform, she did not join the company. In 1948, she moved to New York and got the chance to dance her own choreography on a shared program at the 92nd Street YMHA. In 1951 she won the Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway for her work in Cole Porter’s Out of This World. She also performed in Aida, Carmen, and was the first Black ballerine to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She could not tour in parts of the Deep South, owing to her race. In later life Collins taught modern dance at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York City, and at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Janet Collins struggled repeatedly against racism, which did not spare the world of professional ballet dancing. Not many African-American dancers and performers achieved the successful career she was able to attain, and she paved the way for others to follow. In 1951, she became the first African American to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Marian Anderson, the first to sing there, did not perform until 1955. In the year Collins retired, Arthur Mitchell, joined the New York City Ballet. Janet Collins’ dance reputation today resides primarily in her role in breaking the colour barrier; the constraints on Black classical dancers were too strong for her to have a vibrant performing career. However, her original choreography, which she performed in solo tours, was clearly of note, although few records survive. In her late forties she retired, turning to religion and finding comfort as an oblate in the Benedictine order. She was also an accomplished painter. Collins passed away in 2003 at the age of 86, in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2007, in recognition of Collins’ great work and dedication, her renowned cousin Carmen De Lavallade established the Janet Collins Fellowship to honor aspiring talented ballet dancers. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1989.
“Janet Collins was the first African American to become Prima Ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That was over 60 years ago and she alone today still holds that accomplishment. Just as Jackie Robinson broke the color barriers of baseball, Janet Collins broke the toughest barrier in the all-white world of classical ballet. Yet she still remains virtually unknown. Join DTH in celebrating her legacy…” —Dance Theatre of Harlem