MEET THE STORY TELLERS
Carmen De Lavallade
Carmen DeLavallade, dancer, choreographer, Yale University professor and stage and film actress, was first inspired to dance by her cousin, Janet Collins. At the age of 16, her dream was to be like Janet. Her talents led to a scholarship to study dance with Lester Horton. And then to being a successful member of the Lester Horton Dance Theater in 1949 where she was a lead dancer until her departure for New York City with Alvin Ailey in 1954.
Recently dancing on Broadway in a Streetcar Named Desire, her career in all its myriad offshoots continues to today, and Carmen continues to light up as she remembers how important a role Janet played in her life and career.
In her own words..
There are unsung heroes who fall into our lives and leave a lasting inspiration in their wake. Such was Janet Collins. Mostly unknown and forgotten today, she was a sensation in the 1950's. Janet blazed her way from a devastating rejection in her teens, because of her color, by the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, to become the Prima Ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera, a sensation in the Broadway show "Out Of This World" and known for her extraordinary performances as a solo concert artist. Janet inspired me, not because she was my cousin, but because of her generosity in helping me and others through a difficult time in our history where dancers of color were more or less ignored, particularly if you wanted to be a classical dancer. Today, the world of Dance is booming and young people no matter what their background should learn what the rite of passage had been for those like Janet , who paved the way so they can express themselves in their personal choice of dance.
Roberta Haynes played starring roles with Gary Cooper, Rock Hudson, among others, and later moved to production and development, including becoming VP of Movies and Mini-Series at 20th Century Fox.
She and Janet began a lifelong friendship in their teens, meeting in a small shared dance studio. They soon learned that minority women, whether black or Jewish, would have to work harder and smarter than most to reach their dreams. Over the decades they shared the struggles and achievements that women, and especially women of color, had to endure in the days before civil rights and equal opportunity.
Today we have friend and family here to put together the intricate and beautiful puzzle that was Janet’s life. It’s a lifetime of experiences that goes so much deeper than accolades and headlines… an époque life that, as dancer and Tony Award winner Geoffry Holder said of her, “gave everybody hope.”
In her own words...
When I first met Janet in a shared dance studio in 1942, I was about 15. Janet generously helped me with my ballet. When I invited her to go get coffee at the local soda counter, Janet wasn't surprised when they wouldn't serve us. It was my first experience of segregation, but not Janet’s.
Since she was a little girl, Janet dreamed of being a ballerina, en pointe, like Pavlova. Of course there were black dancers in vaudeville, in musicals, film, but there was absolutely not one ballerina of color on the classical stage. This was still the period of complete racial segregation, even for the biggest black stars, like Lena Horn and Bill Bo Jangles, who couldn't eat at the same table as their white counterparts.
It is so important to not forget the trail blazers. Janet was a beacon during a period of racial segregation in the United States. She led the way in the world of dance and even today, it’s rare to find a female ballerina of color in our major ballet companies. We must never forget that or her.
Being a writer and reporter for many years, I was shocked that the story of this Prima Ballerina of the New York Metropolitan Opera had slipped into obscurity. Her struggle to gain the pinnacle of dance in America had opened the doors to every ballerina of color on the stage today!
As I delved into this more, it became very clear that if we wanted to remind the world of Janet, and thus honor her determination and talent, we needed to tell the story now. Janet would be 95 years old this year and we have a short window to gain the first-hand stories of other key players in her life’s inspiring adventure. What a privilege it is to work on this project and share with a larger audience her impact on the world of dance and the positive influence she had on those who knew her!