February 05, 2011

Feb 5 – Janet Collins: Prima Ballerina, Choreographer and Painter

It’s Saturday, and perhaps you will be taking in a bit of culture this evening? Maybe the ballet?

Janet Faye Collins was a Creole, born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in March, 1917 – one of six children to a tailor and a seamstress. Four years later, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, California. As she grew a bit older, she became very interested in ballet, and was graced with a dancer’s body.

At the age of ten, Janet attended her first ballet lesson at a Catholic community center in Los Angeles, where, reportedly, her mother agreed to sew the costumes in exchange for her class fees. Subsequently, Janet studied with Carmelita Maracci, one of the few ballet teachers, at the time, who accepted Black students.

Janet continued to study dance, but her parents felt that, as a person of color, she would have more chances of being accepted in the art world, if she were a painter, instead. So she also studied painting, as an art major on scholarship, at Los Angeles City College and Los Angeles Art Center School.

In many ways, her parents were correct about acceptance – or lack thereof…In 1932, when Janet was a teenager, the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performed in Los Angeles, during its American tour, and she was able to gain an audition with its director, Leonide Massine. Leonide thought Janet was very talented, so accepted her into the Company, under one condition: she would have to paint her skin white for performances. Janet was devastated, and “sat on the steps [of the stage] and cried and cried,” she told The New York Times in a 1974 interview, because “I thought talent mattered. Not color,” she also recounted to U.S. News & World Report, in another interview. She, of course, declined the ‘offer’.

This crushing experience motivated Janet to work harder and be an even better dancer. She danced with several Los Angeles dance companies and also gained a Fellowship to the San Francisco School of Ballet. She even studied Hebrew music, in Oregon, with composer, Enoch Bloch. Janet began choreographing her own unique shows and creating her own costumes, with the help of her mother. This gained her critical acclaim, and she won a scholarship to study in New York City.

When Janet made her New York debut, in 1949, Herald Tribune critic, Walter Terry, wrote that "it took no more (and probably less) than eight measures of movement in the opening dance to establish her claim to dance distinction...She could, and probably would stop a Broadway show in its tracks." 

Terry was right…two years later, Janet became the first African-American artist to perform at The Metropolitan Opera, four years before Marian Anderson sang there. Then Ballet Master, Zachary Solov, had hired her to be the Prima Ballerina in Aida because, when he first saw her dance, he thought that “when she walked across the stage, it was electric. Her body just spoke.”

Janet became a ‘dancing sensation’ and for several years, continued to perform with Companies, including The Alvin Ailey Dance American Dance Theater, as well as for her own solo shows. She had also become an inspiration for other Black dancers, as dancer and actor, Geoffrey Holder (married to Janet’s cousin, dancer, Carmen de Lavallade) said, “She was an inspiration to me as a child in Trinidad. What she did…gave everybody hope.”

Janet Collins in La Gioconda
Metropolitan Opera House

Spending the latter part of her life teaching dance and painting religious subjects, Janet passed away in Fort Worth, Texas, at the age of 86. Her cousin, Carmen De Lavallade, established The Janet Collins Fellowship which honors aspiring talented ballet dancers.

Janet, after her Met debut in 1951

Sources: The New York Times, Wikipedia, Answers.com, Google Images


  1. I saw her in Out of This World and later in a concert in DC (in the old Central High School I had been forced to leave, because it was turned into Cardozo for black students, this was before Brown vs Board of Ed). I was at the Met Opera ballet school when she was ballerina, but did not see her in class there. The company kids all idolized her. I never saw her again, but she was INCREDIBLE.

  2. Zena I would like to share this blog with 5th and 8th grade teachers. I will pair nicely with a new book about Janet, A Dance Like Starlight! Do I have your permission? This exposes students to another type of online research!