March 21 - Today's post contributed by Kristy Dempsey
The Shoulders of Giants
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
My own giants have spanned race, religion and culture and have nurtured humility and respect in my soul not only for their great achievements as women, but for their character and service to others.
One such giant – in reality, a tiny sprite in stature! – is Janet Collins, the first African American to perform under contract with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Collins was the inspiration for my recent picture book A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT (published by Philomel/Penguin Putnam). I am neither African American nor a ballerina, but in learning about this resilient woman, I strongly identified with her desire and passion. The fire of her dream to dance shines a light on the dedication and hard work it takes to pursue any dream.
Janet Collins experienced tremendous discrimination in her quest to become a professional dancer. After a successful audition with the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she declined the prestigious position when they informed her she would have to paint her face white to perform. Throughout her life, Collins also suffered from bouts of depression. During one such occasion, she was hospitalized and later woke to discover she had been sterilized, in accordance with California’s eugenics laws. This undeserved tragedy traumatized Collins, yet she became more determined to pursue her dream and to dance so well that the color of her skin would be no objection. She did just that.
After much success in New York for her solo and ensemble performances, on November 13, 1951 Collins became the first African American to perform under contract with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. This event was widely publicized and celebrated by the New York City media.
The reviews were celebratory. The New York Times singled out Collins: "Miss Collins, of course, is magnificent - beautiful of body, technically superb and every sense a dancer." Collins performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet for three more years and then chose to leave to pursue other opportunities for performance, as well as teaching dance and choreography.
Eventually though, Collins left the dance world altogether to paint and pursue religious devotion. It was an inauspicious end to the career of the woman who broke the color barrier for African American ballerinas. Yet, Collins was still fervently pursuing her dreams, even as they grew and changed. She was not allowing the opinions or demands of others to determine the course of her life.
It is this character of determination that so appeals to me in Janet Collins as a “giant” who has gone before, as a woman who has made history. It is also why, in A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT when the main character asks:
Could a colored girl like me/ ever become a prima ballerina?
the answer comes from Janet Collins’s performance.
It is like Miss Collins is dancing for me,Only for me,Showing me who I can be.
Even though Janet Collins broke the color barrier for African American ballerinas in 1951, her passion still serves as an example for the many African American ballerinas who struggle to make their place in a field that continues to be dominated by white dancers. Collins is just one example of the many women in many different fields who have pursued their dreams with hard work, dedication and persistence. A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT is my song of thanks to all the women throughout history who have shown us who we can be and have given us an example to pursue our dreams with passion.
Kristy Dempsey grew up in a Tennessee holler, became a teenager in a South Carolina town named for a truck stop and went to college thinking she would become something that would take her far, far away from hollers and small towns. She became many different “somethings,” the most recent of which has her a continent away from home working as a teacher and a librarian in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a bustling city of 4 million people. Ironically she often finds herself writing about home and small towns, brave choices, family relationships and all the things she misses most from her childhood. She is the author of Me with you (Philomel), Mini Racer (Bloomsbury), Surfer Chick (Abrams) and the recent A Dance Like Starlight (Philomel) which received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist and is a Spring 2014 Junior Library Guild Selection.