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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank.

'They were absolutely IT': 'The Swans of Harlem' is the story of five pioneering Black ballerinas

The Swans of Harlem: Marcia Sells, Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin and Lydia Abarca-Mitchell
Delphine Diallo for The New York Times
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Penguin Random House
The Swans of Harlem: Marcia Sells, Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin and Lydia Abarca-Mitchell

“Tragically, a lot of people will be learning about these women for the first time,” Karen Valby says of the five pioneering Black ballerinas she profiles in her new book The Swans of Harlem. “These five women were founding and first-generation ballerinas who helped start the Dance Theatre of Harlem in the 1960s and ‘70s. And they were absolutely it in their day and danced around the world and danced for kings and queens and presidents and were on the covers of magazines and were in movies and then were completely forgotten by history.”

Valby is hoping to bring these five women -- Lydia Abarca-Mitchell, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Marcia Sells and Karlya Shelton-Benjamin – back into the spotlight a bit more with her book, which grew out of a 2021 article she wrote for The New York Times.

“I know that in the reporting of this book, Misty Copeland herself, who's probably the most famous Black ballerina [in the world currently] hadn't heard of them,” Valby says. “In fact, towards the end of the book, there is a moment where the five Swans are on stage with Misty Copeland for a conversation. And it's so poignant and it's… beautiful. But Misty was so apparently frustrated and confounded by the fact that she herself learned of these women's names from the New York Times article, and her journey through professional ballet was lonelier than it needed to be because she was always made to feel like the exception.

“And I think it's very common in the telling of Black history, which is often shunted to the margins and forgotten,” Valby says. “And we seem to, as a culture, be much more comfortable with the idea of the outlier, the one Black exception. And it turned out these women completely changed an art form that had beforehand thought that ballet only belonged to the white body. They broke that door down, they changed the art form and then were nevertheless forgotten. And we still think of ballet as a largely white art form in which Misty Copeland is the exception and it's just not true.”

Valby says she came to be the chronicler of the Swans’ story through her own daughters’ interest in ballet. “I'm the white adoptive mother of two Black girls who each, from the age of two, have been dancing with Austin's own Ballet Afrique, which is China Smith's incredible dance studio down in East Austin that has been around for 16 years,” she says. “And it is one of the only spaces in which my daughters are the majority in the room in Austin. And I would always post photos of their dance recitals or [of] how us moms would pancake their ballet shoes with black or brown makeup before recital time, which is a tradition that the Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas started. And an agent who happened to live… on the same Harlem street as one of the Swans of Harlem said ‘You've got to meet these women who have started a legacy council to remind us all of what they did.’ And I started meeting with the five women and we sort of immediately fell into trust with each other. And then I wrote a New York Times article about them and then it became a book. And so it's been about three or four years of being with the women in their intimate lives. They're all in their 70s and 80s and they have this amazing sisterhood to reclaim their history and this is their third act and I'm just lucky enough to be along for the ride.”

For the past several years, Valby has gotten to know and love the Swans, who have trusted Valby to help share their story. “The prima ballerina, Lydia Abarca-Mitchell. She was in The Wiz, she was on the cover of Dancemagazine. She was a Charlie's Revlon girl. She was it. She is it,” Valby says. “Gayle McKinney-Griffith, who came up in Connecticut, studied at Juilliard before thinking I'm done being the only Black ballerina in this room. I'm going to Dance Theatre of Harlem. Sheila Rohan, who was a married 27-year-old mother of three who, when she went up to Harlem for the audition with the great Arthur Mitchell, said she was 20 and that she didn't have any kids. Then there's Karlya Shelton-Benjamin from Denver, who was the first Black American invited to compete in the Prix de Lausanne when she was a teenager before moving to New York. And then the great Marcia Sells, who joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem when she was 16 and thus was forever known as the baby. These five women let me so intimately into their lives. I'm so honored to know the Swans.”

Unfortunately, McKinney-Griffith didn’t live to see the book’s publication, passing away last October. “This woman, Gayle, very much deserved to have this moment receiving her flowers and it was a huge loss,” Valby says. “But again, her sisters were alongside her as she transitioned. And I think what's most important to state is that she put her story down. These are her words in the book. And as she once told me, ‘You have to tell your story because nobody else will.’ And so I think the magic is that her young grandson will know everything his grandmother did. And her work and her legacy will be remembered.”

 
'The Swans of Harlem' is available wherever you get your books.
Karen Valby will be in conversation about the book on May 13 at BookPeople.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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