The Swans of Harlem and author Karen Valby (photos courtesy of Penguin Random House)

Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith*, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton and Maria Sells. All five women are pioneers for Black ballerinas. But you’ve probably never heard of them. In fact, you, like many of us, might believe that Misty Copeland is the first Black prima ballerina.

That is false.

Abarca, McKinney-Griffith and Rohan make up the founding members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, founded by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer for the New York City Ballet. Abarca, the prima of the group, and McKinney-Griffith and Rohan eventually befriended first-generation dancers Shelton and Sells. Together, they are known as the Swans of Harlem, and that name became the title of entertainment and culture journalist Karen Valby’s latest book, The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History.

I talked with Valby about the upcoming book, coming April 30 through Penguin Random House. She talked about how the book connects to her experiences as a white mother of Black daughters, who are also dancers.

Valby said that the Swans came to her after learning about her daughters’ involvement in ballet.

“The fact of their legacy council came to me because one of the Swans lives on the same block in Harlem as an agent who I’ve known sort of my whole life and who knows how much a Black dance studio has figured in my daughter’s life,” she said. “And I would sort of post about the importance of this studio for my family and just little things about pancaking my daughters’ shoes before recitals. And so when she was talking with her neighbor, one of the Swans talked about how they’re starting this legacy council and their…frustration with feeling forgotten by history. She was starting to think of writers and I think I’d probably just recently posted about Ballet Afrique, which is my daughter’s dance studio.”

The Swans--Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton and Maria Sells--pictured (names not in order). Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House.
The Swans–(L-R) Marcia Sells, Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton and Lydia Abarca. Photo courtesy of Penguin Random House.

The Swans and Valby arranged a Zoom meeting, in which the Swans were able to learn more about Valby, her daughters, and her connection to Black representation in ballet.

“We liked each other kind of right away. And nobody had any concept of this being a book really. I felt like I was just doing the agent a solid by letting them sort of formulate their ideas of what they could be and what their mission was,” she said. “And then I realized they are like fantastic company and their stories were immediately so transfixing and I couldn’t help but think there’s like something so real here and so powerful, not just about the idea of this untold history, but, it was so moving to be invited into this circle of friends.”

“I think that’s what to me was most compelling from the beginning–the very obvious bond of their friendship, their sisterhood, and this idea of getting to both hear what they accomplished together back in the sixties and seventies that they changed. They changed an art form,” she continued. “But then to see what they’re accomplishing again in the present, which was in the company of one another saying, ‘Oh, there’s this wrong and it’s up to us to right it and let’s go.’ I think it was just that power of the circle that [was] such an honor to be able to be led into and it was so incredibly righteous what they wanted to do.”

Valby said she is consciously aware of her position as a white woman in America, leading her to say how she made sure not to center herself when telling the Swans’ story. Her practice of decentering is also a part of her motherhood.

“I think I should probably say to begin with that I don’t believe just by the sheer fact of my whiteness that I am the ideal person to raise my daughters. The Swans don’t like it when I say this, but nor do I believe I’m the ideal, obvious person to, to write their book,” she said. “I think that level of like real humility and self awareness is what allows me to not seriously f–k it up.”

Valby said her stepmother is Black, which thankfully allows Valby’s daughters to grow up in an environment in which “they’re not surrounded by whiteness and they’re not raised by a mother who’s chosen to be surrounded by whiteness.”

“I think my mission, both with my daughters and, and also with the writing of this book is always to not negate or pollute or dilute their experience. I’m never going to tell my daughters how they feel in this world,” she said. “I’m never going to presume, what it’s like to walk through this world. I’m never going to re-translate their experiences, like they are Black girls maneuvering this world and they sort of have this handicap of white parents at home. I want to just be like an honest witness to their experience.”

“I kind of feel the same about the Swans in that. I try not to center. I really hope I’ve accomplished at not centering myself in the process of this book,” she continued. “I try to really hear them at face value. I think early on in the process, they started trusting me that they didn’t have to explain for this white audience or make it nice for this white audience or make it palatable or sugarcoat the injustices and tediousness and absurdity of white supremacy…So…I try not to be an exhausting presence in my daughter’s lives. And I tried not to be an exhausting presence in these women’s lives.”

It was refreshing to hear Valby’s responses about race, privilege and responsibility. I opened up a bit about what it is like to go through life as a Black woman questioning if someone will believe my experiences or, to be frank, my existence, are worthy enough to be credible. She sighed deeply with an understanding that she knew her daughters might face the same struggles as they got older.

“What sort of collapses me when I think about my daughters is the questions that they’ll have to ask themselves…I don’t know how you live with having to ask that question,” she said. “….What I try to talk with my daughters about is the importance of safe spaces and I feel like that phrase has gotten really co-opted as to sound like, ‘Oh, [it’s] for delicate people and easily bruised people,’ but I remember one of the Swans said to me early on in the process–she was describing going into a Juilliard audition and she’s the only Black person in the room and she’d already sort of been steered away from auditioning for ballet [even though] she had very high technique classical training.”

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“So, it was already a bit of a blow, but I was asking her how she managed, what it just felt like to walk in as an only in a room like that,” she continued. “And she said something, I’m going to probably quote it wrong, but[she said] ‘Something every Black woman knows is when you enter into a space like that, you sort of zip yourself up into this protective cocoon. And that cocoon only comes from like sort of years of training and your family inspiring that in you and  knowing that this room demands some protection and some distance.’ And I think about my daughters–are they going to be as skilled at zipping up a cocoon because they’re being raised in a house where the white people are safe? And so it just is so very, very murky, but I was so touched when Gayle shared that sort of just practice that’s very known. And I told my stepmother that and she said, ‘I have to say, I’m surprised a Black woman, especially a Black woman of a certain age, spoke that frankly with you.'”

Being a witness to Black women’s experiences is something Valby considers a gift.

“It was early on in the reporting process…when I really understood the gift of this book, which was that I was in a process that was connecting me in a way with Black women that felt earned and [is] a gift that is really just for me to show my daughters, which is an investment in honoring and elevating Black women’s stories, like I want my daughters’ stories [to be elevated],” she said. “I don’t need them to be ballerinas or the first at things or presidents or CEOs, but I want them to feel valuable and I want them to feel listened to and heard and paid attention to. So I just feel like this whole process of the book has been me living out what I want for my daughters, which is listening to Black women and finding them incredibly specific and moving and worthy of this kind of attention.”

“I just feel like, in some way, this has just been this amazing circular process that is really just trying to make my daughters proud,” she continued. “…I think the women sort of trusted me a little at the beginning was because they cared about my daughters and because they…see themselves as possible role models for girls like my daughters. And so it’s just been the coolest human experience and that feels very lucky. I am just benefitting from both generations.”

So, back to Misty Copeland. Copeland herself has written a blurb for the book, praising it for uncovering the untold truth about Black ballet history.

As she wrote:

“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!”

Copeland’s wish for this kind of information earlier in her life is exactly why Valby wanted to write the book. To that end, it was important for her to make it clear to readers that Copeland isn’t the first Black prima ballerina.

“I mean, the most obvious reason is because it’s false,” she said about the importance of correcting the narrative. “The first reason to tell the story is because it’s just important that we try to tell history in as correct and complete a fashion [because] that narrative is so lonely-making. I mean, it’s this idea of exceptionalism and tokens and outliers. It’s just not real. What I yearn for most of all for my daughters is community. ”

“There is a community of Black ballerinas throughout history and that tradition should be considered and known so that a young woman like Misty Copeland isn’t thrust into the culture as this one-off. I mean, she’s iconic because she’s so magnificent and because she’s so talented and because she handled her fame so gracefully,” she continued. “But…as the Swans said, they would have loved to be her aunties or her grandmothers [to say] we don’t have to bear the burden of excellence alone. Misty Copeland is one of many and when the culture puts her on this pedestal of one, well, where are her peers?…It’s marginalizing and it makes girls like my daughters think you have to be a unicorn. I’m not saying the road towards being a ballerina is easy or everybody can travel it and succeed, but I think white culture tends to be more comfortable when there’s just one in a room, because then it’s up to that individual to make it or it’s non-threatening and it just allows American ballet theater to feel like, ‘Look at us, we’ve promoted [one.]’ Black men and women have been triumphing in this art form for a long time. We as chroniclers just reduced the triumph.”

Cover art for The Swans of Harlem. Image credit: Penguin Random House
Cover art for The Swans of Harlem. Image credit: Penguin Random House

I also relayed some of my experiences about having been a unicorn at moments in my life. I talked about how that life can be flattening.

“That phrase ‘flattening the unicorn’ is so evocative,” Valby responded. “I think [the unicorn scenario] somehow puts that one person in the room [and] it puts them in a position of [acting like] ‘I’m so grateful to be in the room.’ And it’s how my beloved Gayle [said about] having to walk into Julliard and zipping herself up. It sounds like it can be a distant experience in that room. And if your first primary job is to be great at what you’re great at, but also to kind of buffer yourself from attack or misunderstanding, that gets in the way of your art, of your gift, if you’re also sort of protecting yourself from people’s flattening of your dimension.”

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“It was really important for me with this book to show there is tension and there is bias and there is injustice and there is some suffering in the book. But this is a book of flight and joy and of these women who feel known and seen by each other, and that is joyful. This is not a book about women who were just reduced and dismissed and, you know, ‘they were strong anyway and rose up anyway,'” she continued. “These are women who followed their hearts and were incredibly gifted and had the extraordinary luck of finding each other and they danced in community and alongside of each other and felt beautiful and knew the other was beautiful and weren’t in competition with each other. They had each other’s hearts and backs. And I want those types of friendships and spaces for my girls. I want them to feel hyped up by the people in their lives and their jobs. And if the world is ugly, they have each other. There was so much joy in these women’s lives.”

Valby said that the way the Swans made it through their tribulations and retain their joy was because they had each other and were never alone.

“…They were not the only [one] in the room, they were not proving something to their white company director or the white women who wanted their roles. They were a family that understood the urgency and beauty of their mission. They never went alone into the world,” she said. “At a young age, they were in company together. I don’t think I can overstate the sort of magic of that sense of belonging and being able to unzip that armor while you practice your craft. It just sounds so liberating. So when people would ask the Prima, Lydia Abarca, ‘When are you going to go to [New York] City Ballet?’ or [other white ballet companies], she was like, ‘I don’t need to go to a white space to be a legitimate prima ballerina.'”

Valby hopes that readers are positively activated by learning this bit of unsung history. In a time of learning about “hidden figures,” she hopes that readers are happy to accept new information that can positively alter their worldview.

“I constantly am impressed by people who know what they don’t know and who aren’t intimidated or enraged by that, but who can receive a point of view or information or fact of history or experience and be like, ‘I never knew,’ and like. ‘What else don’t I know?’ Or, ‘Why didn’t I know?'” she said. “And I guess…for like a YA edition, if my 15-year-old read it, I’d like her to just feel reminded that sometimes you have to look harder for a community, but it is there and it is worth seeking out.”

“For a white reader picking this up I’d like them to just be like, ‘That’s f—ed up that I didn’t know about that. Why didn’t I?’ And it’s not lost on me that in the reporting [for] this book, when I was doing my research…still an acquaintance in my life [was problematic],” she said, going into an explanation of how she tackled a rough experience with that acquaintance.

“I have very talented, accomplished daughters. I’m incredibly proud of them and I’m always hyping up Ballet Afrique. An acquaintance in my life, a white woman, was asking me what my book was about, and I said, ‘Oh, Black ballerinas back int he ’60s.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I never really see Black ballerinas,’ and I said, ‘Hmmm.’ She goes, ‘Yeah, I guess because they’re so muscular,'” she said. “I had the wherewithal to say, ‘Yes, that’s a very racist notion That racism was present in the ’60s when they were being denied auditions.’ And she was like, [miming the woman’s discomfort] ‘Yeah, it’s so weird.'”

“It’s 2023 [and] you’re saying to a mother of Black daughters, ‘Well yeah, you never see Black ballerinas and I guess it’s just because their bodies are just so [muscular],'” she continued. “..It is so hard to change bias and racism and so I guess I’d hope this woman bought this book and I hope she makes a healthy donation to Ballet Afrique because she’s so ashamed at how little she knows.”

Taking on the racist viewpoints of others can be challenging, but Valby said she’d rather take on the challenge as a white woman who has not had to be historically challenged in that way.

“It’s better me do it than you do it or my daughters do it. Better me, who has this lifetime of reserves from not being tested like that, being able to say, ‘Oh, that’s very racist,'” she said. “And it’s funny because that’s a racist notion from the ’60s. It’s okay for us to feel shame at our internal biases and prejudices. It’s okay to feel stupid and ashamed of the system we’ve bought into. And it’s not going to break us, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It just means like I said before, ‘Oh how little I know of this world.'”

As for how she feels about sharing the book release with the Swans, Valby can’t be happier.

“They deserve this third act so much and they’re the coolest dames that are going to have so much fun on this ride and they’re performers–they’re just going to have a ball promoting this book,” she said. “I just think they’re released of some feeling of being gaslit by history and so this is incredibly fun and exciting and I feel like I’ve made my daughters proud. This is an excellent time.”

*McKinley-Griffith died recently due to cancer. Valby wrote about McKinley-Griffith’s death on Instagram, stating, “It’s brutal to lose a finger of the hand. But there’s been comfort in witnessing how friends can walk us to the brink and go on holding us up even after we’ve crossed over. And there’s relief in knowing that Gayle told her story, that it’s down on record for her grandson, and for the rest of us too. Truly, she was a graceful wonder. She’s still so alive in everything soft and beautiful.”

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By Monique