The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

Karen Valby

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Book cover for The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History
Book cover for The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History
Book cover for The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History
Book cover for The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

Karen Valby

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Description

The forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas and their fifty-year sisterhood, a legacy erased from history--until now.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lydia Abarca was a Black prima ballerina with a major international dance company--the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a troupe of women and men who became each other's chosen family. She was the first Black company ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine, an Essence cover star; she was cast in The Wiz and in a Bob Fosse production on Broadway. She performed in some of ballet's most iconic works with other trailblazing ballerinas, including the young women who became her closest friends--founding Dance Theatre of Harlem members Gayle McKinney-Griffith and Sheila Rohan, as well as first-generation dancers Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells.

These Swans of Harlem performed for the Queen of England, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder, on the same bill as Josephine Baker, at the White House, and beyond. But decades later there was almost no record of their groundbreaking history to be found. Out of a sisterhood that had grown even deeper with the years, these Swans joined forces again--to share their story with the world.

Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamour and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of both their historic careers and the sustaining, grounding power of female friendship, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.

About the Author

KAREN VALBY is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, where she is a frequent contributor, The New York Times, O Magazine, Glamour, Fast Company, and EW, where she spent fifteen years writing about culture.

Critical Reviews

A Most Anticipated Book from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Goodreads, The New York Post, Town and Country, Oprah Daily, AARP, Cosmopolitan, The Week, The Millions, Chicago Tribune, Book Riot, and Arlington Magazine

"If [The Swans of Harlem] were just a quest for cultural redress, the result might have been a dusty scroll of the Swans' ballet bona fides. It's by getting personal that it leaps high...Valby skillfully maps the ugliness of a segregated art form...All of this [history] is absorbing. Yet it's the odd details that shine brightest...There's so much meaning and humanity in this kind of minutiae...The moral of this important and tear-stained book is actually a reminder: Bare oneself, fly into the grandest of jetés and live free."
--New York Times Books Review

"Karen Valby's The Swans of Harlem brings to life the stories of Black dancers whose contributions to the world of ballet were silenced, marginalized, and otherwise erased. Karen introduces readers to important figures of our past, while inspiring us to courageously chase our dreams. This is the kind of history I wish I learned as a child dreaming of the stage!"
--Misty Copeland, New York Times-bestselling author of Black Ballerinas: My Journey To Our Legacy

"Until Valby's utterly absorbing, flawlessly-researched book, I never knew the story of the original Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas--and now, I demand that their lives be taught in schools! Valby finally sheds light on these towering dance pioneers, all of whom triumphed as dancers in a world that didn't believe Black people had a place in the classical art form. Vibrant, propulsive, and inspiring, The Swans of Harlem is a richly drawn portrait of five courageous women whose contributions have been silenced for too long!"
--Tia Williams, New York Times-bestselling author of Seven Days in June

"These five original Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas fell in love with an art form that most of America believed was white and should remain so. Upon Arthur Mitchell's founding of an all-Black company in 1969, they eagerly took their places at the barre and challenged themselves to the utmost. They triumphed. They showed that Blacks could not only excel at classical ballet but could also shape the art in their own vibrant image. Karen Valby weaves their stories together as a choreographer would: the women form an ensemble, yet each gets her own riveting solo. It's thrilling to watch as they join forces at last and claim their unique place in American ballet's past, present and future."
--Margo Jefferson, author of Constructing a Nervous System

"A vivid portrait...'The 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council, ' writes Ms. Valby, 'came together to write themselves back into history.' Thanks in part to her book, that history can be told with greater fidelity--a history to inspire dancers and dance enthusiasts alike."
--Wall Street Journal

"Valby introduces and celebrates the extraordinary lives and careers of ballerinas Lydia Abarca-Mitchell, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin and Marcia Sells...Swans burns with the dancers' distinct sense of urgency and purpose...Valby provides an absorbing glimpse into this world through vivid details of the women's lives as artists, wives, mothers, friends and Black women. More than a chronicle of dance history, the book is a testament to the enduring power of sisterhood and female friendships, especially in the face of discrimination and exclusion...The book also works to set the record straight, ensuring the women take their rightful place in history."
--Ms. Magazine

"In this deeply researched history, Valby gracefully recounts the dance careers and personal lives of these five trailblazing ballerinas--who were once lost to history. What results is a book suffused with rich character studies and memorable details...that will captivate dance experts and novices alike."
--Oprah Daily

"A loving tribute."
--Smithsonian Magazine

"A vibrant, lovingly researched group biography of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council, the five Black ballerinas who, at the peak of the civil rights movement, brought new urgency to a segregated art form."
--Chicago Tribune

"Five of the world's greatest dancers helped change the face of ballet--they performed at the White House, they appeared on Broadway, they were on the covers of magazines...This insightful history from Karen Valby tells the stories of Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton, and Marcia Sells, celebrating the contributions they made to their art form and giving them the recognition they so greatly deserve."
--Town and Country Magazine

"Remarkable...Spirited...Valby's extensive interviews with the dancers lend an intimacy to the narrative, the details of their lives elevated and their perspectives clearly observed. The women of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council are determined to bring their story out of obscurity. In The Swans of Harlem, they become unforgettable."
--Bookpage

"Valby's group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world."
--The Millions

"Extraordinary...Valby is the ideal writer for The Swans of Harlem precisely because she's not part of that world and its self-referential, sometimes impenetrable discourse. Valby knows enough about ballet to understand the Swans' experiences, but more importantly, she knows how to structure a wide-ranging, complex narrative that's both engaging and emotional. Her confident, well-informed writing is accessible to a wide audience of readers who might know little about ballet or dance...One of the most admirable features of The Swans of Harlem is how prominently and proudly each dancer's voice speaks within the narrative...The Swans of Harlem is magnificent. It accomplishes its goal of chronicling an overlooked history while being extremely well-written and giving voice and presence to a marginalized group. This story needed to be told, and Valby and the Swans have collectively created something marvelous by telling it."
--Pop Matters

"A remarkable underdog story...This feels, rightly, like the beginning of a larger conversation...There are so many stories still to tell; these efforts might help the next black ballerina to find her wings."
--The Telegraph

"With vivid character development and detailed storytelling, Valby has crafted an engaging and informative account of five Black ballerinas, fifty years of sisterhood, and a passionate reclamation of a truly groundbreaking history...I found myself completely immersed...The Swans of Harlem is an ideal read for Black History month but a vital read for every month of the year."
--The Independent Critic

"A vibrant and captivating look at five trailblazing women."
--Arlington Magazine

"For those who love Hidden Figures and are interested in dance and culture...Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamor and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of their historic careers, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long."
--Texas Lifestyle Magazine

"Vibrant...A captivating corrective to an often-whitewashed history."
--Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A skilled storyteller with an eye for significant details and thematic complexity...[A] dynamic, tumultuous, and inspiring journey of the five central ballerinas, the book is deeply researched and full of heart. A rich, detailed, and complex history of Harlem's first prima ballerinas."
--Kirkus

"Engaging and insightful... A powerful narrative of professional triumphs and personal challenges that celebrates Black excellence in ballet. Anyone who appreciates dance will be enriched and inspired by the stories of these five intrepid dancers."
--Booklist

"There is joy in the way the women discuss their decades-long friendships and trailblazing performances in this book. Valby gives each dancer space for their stories to naturally flow, writing them as fully realized individuals with their own hopes and dreams...Heartwarming."
--Library Journal

"A story that you'll be glad you know now, one you'll be satisfied to've read. So find The Swans of Harlem. You want it, so don't waste a minute."
--NJ Urban News

Publishing Information

Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pub date: 2024-04-30
Length: 304 pages

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