Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Review - The Swans of Harlem

Title:  The Swans of Harlem
Author Karen Valby
Publisher:  Pantheon
Genre:   Memoir
Format:  Kindle ARC
No. of Pages:   304
Date of Publication:   April 30, 2024
My Rating:   

The forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas and their fifty-year sisterhood, a legacy erased from history—until now.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lydia Abarca was a Black prima ballerina with a major international dance company—the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a troupe of women and men who became each other’s chosen family. She was the first Black ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine, an Essence cover star; she was cast in The Wiz and in a Bob Fosse production on Broadway. She performed in some of ballet’s most iconic works with other trailblazing ballerinas, including the young women who became her closest friends—founding Dance Theatre of Harlem members Gayle McKinney-Griffith and Sheila Rohan, as well as first-generation dancers Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells.

These Swans of Harlem performed for the Queen of England, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder, on the same bill as Josephine Baker, at the White House, and beyond. But decades later there was almost no record of their groundbreaking history to be found. Out of a sisterhood that had grown even deeper with the years, these Swans joined forces again—to share their story with the world.

Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamour and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of both their historic careers and the sustaining, grounding power of female friendship, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.


“Starting a Black ballet company at the end of the civil rights era.” This was no easy task for Arthur Mitchell, who, with sheer determination proved a harsh, and effective, taskmaster as he worked with and trained 
Black classical dancers. These would-be ballerinas mostly unheard of in the world of classical ballet.

It was 1969, and the Dance Theater or Harlem (DTH) was founded by Mitchell, and featured Black ballet dancers. This involved breaking the color line Fighting racism. Even fighting colorism. Where did Black dancers belong? Mitchell wanted to pull them from modern dance and turn them into ballerinas.

The DTH began with five ballerinas, among men also being trained by Mitchell. We have Lydia Abarca, who achieved more than a bit of success. This success included being the first Black ballerina on the cover of the now defunct Dance magazine, popular with Essence, and even cast in the Wiz. Then she was cast by Bob Fosse and was on broadway. This in no way was a life of ease for Lydia. Pain came in a close second, often even first when it came to fame. Lydia was only one of the five ballerinas Mitchell worked hard to gain recognition. However, without research resources, their names are largely hidden in history.  

Karen Valper and Pantheon do a fabulous job of celebrating these five women, even correcting popular history when it needs correcting. Mitchell became a ballet dancer of some fame himself - breaking the stereotype often expected of Black dancers during that era. As this led to him creating the DTH, he broke that stereotype. These Black dancers were pioneers and they really belonged in classical dancing

Arther Mitchell was hard on his female ballet dancers. Strict beyond belief, he wanted these young ballerinas to get the notoriety they deserved. In most cases at the beginning, at least, these young Black ballerinas went mostly unnoticed. A lonely world to be sure. But these young people had artistry and, although time ran out for most of them, the AIDS crisis really hitting the dance world hard, it was a true epidemic that ended many careers. 

Lydia Arbaca was only one of the five ballerinas featured in this book. There were also Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells. These women belonged on the classical stage. Of that there was no doubt. Their lives and careers hit a lot of stumbling blocks, but with great research having gone into this book, it was easy to connect to each dancer. This was made possible by some of the dancers’ own words at times. These women deserve to be celebrated, honored and are due our respect.

Many thanks to Pantheon and to NetGalley for this ARC for review. This is my honest opinion.

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