While working on the picture book biography, Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins, I was struck by the graceful images of Janet’s first cousin, Carmen de Lavallade. Carmen’s beauty, elegance, and passion for dance shine through every photo. Here are five things I find most fascinating:
1. Janet Collins, the first African-American principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera, was Carmen’s role model: Carmen was born in 1931 in Los Angeles. Her cousin Janet Collins was older and a huge inspiration. Carmen wanted to follow in her footsteps. She saw Janet’s struggles with racism and Janet’s determination to keep dancing despite the obstacles. Carmen succeeded Janet Collins as principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera (after Janet left in the mid 1950s).
2. Carmen knew dancer Alvin Ailey in high school and invited him to dance class. Alvin Ailey was a gymnast in high school. Carmen loved the way he moved and suggested he get into dance. She took Alvin to dance class with Lester Horton (a dancer, choreographer, and teacher).
3. Carmen met her husband, Geoffrey Holder, in 1954 when they joined the Broadway cast of “House of Flowers”. They were married in 1955. Geoffrey was an actor, dancer, choreographer, painter, and costume designer. He made Carmen beautiful dresses. They were married for nearly 60 years until Geoffrey passed away in 2014.
4. In addition to being a dancer, Carmen is an actress. Actress Lena Horne introduced Carmen to filmmakers, and Carmen appeared in four films, including Carmen Jones (1954) with Dorothy Dandridge and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) with Harry Belafonte, as well as numerous off-Broadway productions. Carmen later taught movement at Yale School of Drama, teaching actors how to tell stories with their bodies. This is something Janet Collins was also known for – expressing and conveying emotion and stories with the body.
5. Carmen received the Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2017. Because of her long, distinguished career, Carmen has received many honors, including the Kennedy Center Honors, which recognizes accomplishments of the most prestigious artists in the country. Carmen’s accomplishments include performing as guest artist with American Ballet Theater and choreographing for several companies. She is truly a legend, and I especially love how she talks with young ballet dancers and others about the importance of following your dreams and forging ahead, even when the path is difficult.
Author Michelle Meadows blogs about reading, writing, and publishing children’s books. Subscribe to receive Michelle’s email newsletter/blog posts, and get a chance to win signed books through giveaways.