The Current

Meet Raven Wilkinson, the black ballerina who blazed a trail long before shoes came in brown and bronze

A U.K company has announced it will now make ballet shoes in colours that reflect the diverse skin tones of dancers, but one woman dared to dance against prejudice long before this.

Company will now make ballet shoes — traditionally white — in diverse colours

Ballet shoes — or pointe shoes — are traditionally either light pink or white, but a U.K. company will now manufacture more diverse hues. (Rachel Neville/Submitted by Dance Theater of Harlem )

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Originally published on November 13, 2018.

Something new is afoot in the world of ballet. 

Ballet shoes — or pointe shoes — are traditionally either light pink or white. But last week one of the biggest manufacturers of the item announced that it is rolling out two new hues: "ballet brown" and "ballet bronze."

The move by Freed of London, is being seen as a step toward inclusivity in the dance world — but one black ballet dancer paved the way for diversity in dance long before this.

Raven Wilkinson was a dancer who toured with Ballet Russe in the 1950s, and faced racism when she tried to perform in the U.S.'s deep south.

Leda Schubert wrote Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a children's book about what the ballet dancer faced. She spoke to The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti about Wilkinson's journey. Here is part of their conversation.

Raven Wilkinson, right, with the ballerina Misty Copeland in New York City on April 19, 2015. Copeland calls Wilkinson her mentor. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)

How did she get her start?

She loved ballet from the time she was five years old, when her parents took her to see Coppélia. She said before the curtain even lifted, she heard the timpani, she saw the red velvet curtain, she was sitting on the plush seats, and she said she just knew that this was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. And she cried. And that's what she did. She became a beautiful dancer.

She toured with the company through the southern U.S. ... Tell us a little bit more about what it was like for her?

Terrible! [laughs] Well, it wasn't really terrible because she had the company of the dancers, and she loved to dance, and that's all she ever wanted to do.

Schubert's book — Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson — aims to tell children the story of a young woman following her dreams. (Submitted by Little Bee Books)

But the encounters that she had with racists in the south of America were frightening. One encounter included some Ku Klux Klan members — we think they were Ku Klux Klan members — running up on to the stage and saying "Where's the Negro, where's the Negro?" and she was circled by the white dancers in the troupe and protected.

But imagine the courage that that took, to stay on the stage.

Wasn't there a case where the KKK actually burned a cross by the hotel where she was staying?

Yes, one night she was eating in the hotel restaurant, I think this was in Montgomery, and she was sitting at a table. At the tables next to her were some families with young children, and she thought they had white laundry on the chairs next to them. And then she realized that it was the hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan. And that night she saw a cross burn from her hotel window. And the next day she did not dance.

I think it was in '57 that that event occurred ... all this was exacerbated by Brown vs. the Board of Education, which was encouraging southern schools to integrate, and people were fighting back.

It's interesting as well, because she was fairly light-skinned, and was encouraged at times to pass as white — and she refused.

Yes she did. She said she would be lying about who she was, and she couldn't possibly do that.

Leda Schubert, author of Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson. She told Tremonti that Wilkinson faced racism when she danced in the southern states in the 1950s. (Submitted by Little Bee Books)

But she ended up having to move to Europe to dance.

She did, and not because the company let her go, but because she was told she could never be the Black Swan in Swan Lake. And she said, "Why not?" And they said, "It's just not going to happen for you." So she went to Holland where she joined the Dutch National Ballet, and she had been told early on, by Serge DeNimes and by her first teachers, that she would be a beautiful dancer, and that she would dance before kings and queens. And she did in Holland.

You tell her story; is it well known?

I don't think it's well-known. It's well-known now more because of Misty Copeland, who credits Raven as being her mentor. When [Misty] first danced Swan Lake on stage, she invited Raven to the opening, and Raven came up on stage with her. And I think that was a wonderful thing for Raven, who thinks Misty is just an amazing human being, as we all do. So I think that Misty's rise to fame has helped Raven become better known.

Knowing that story about Raven Wilkinson, what does it tell you that it's taken this long for black dancers to find point shoes to match their skin?

Racism is alive and well in this country, and I know in other countries as well. It's a tragedy. It's unimaginable to me that it's taken this long to come up with shoes that create that beautiful line in dancers. We want to encourage dancing from all people, and we want a diverse world. 

I can't believe it's taken this long. And I'm happy that they're there now.

Listen to the full conversation above.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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