BORN: March 7, 1917 - DIED: May 28, 2003
Ms. Janet Collins was born in New Orleans and then moved to Los Angeles, CA where she received her first dance training at a Catholic community center. She studied primarily with Carmelita Maracci, Lester Horton and Adolph Bolm, who were among the few ballet teachers who accepted black students. As a ballet dancer, choreographer, and teacher, she performed on Broadway, in films, and appeared frequently on television. Ms. Collins was among the pioneers of black ballet dancing, one of the few classically trained Black dancers of her generation.
In 1932, at aged 16, Collins auditioned with success for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. One of the conditions however was that she was required to paint her face and skin white in order to be able to perform. Ms. Collins decided not to join the company, and felt her color should have nothing to do with her skill as a ballerina. Janet Collins' dance reputation today resides primarily in her role in breaking the color barrier; the constraints on Black classical dancers were too strong for her to have a vibrant performing career. In some Southern cites, race laws kept her off the stage, and her parts were played by understudies. After a performance in Toronto, she and a colleague approached the door of an obviously crowded restaurant only to be turned away with the curt statement that the establishment was closed.
In the 1940s, Janet Collins collaborated with well-known dancer Katherine Dunham and joined the Dunham Company. A turning point in her dance career came in November 1948, when she performed in a one-night program at the Las Palmas Theater in Los Angeles. She earned excellent notices and reviews. In 1948, she moved to New York and got the chance to dance her own choreography on a shared program at the 92nd Street YMHA.
MS. Collins also performed in Aida, Carmen, and was the first Black ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951 which she joined the next year and performed at until 1955. Later in life Ms. Collins taught modern dance at Balanchine's School of American Ballet in New York City and at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City from 1951 until 1972. In 1974, Ms. Collins retired from performing and teaching. That same year Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater paid homage to her and Pearl Primus as pioneering black women in dance. In failing health, she moved to Fort Worth from Seattle in 2000 to be closer to her brother. Janet Collins died in 2003 at the age of 86. In 2007, in recognition of Ms. Collins great work and dedication, her renowned cousin Carmen De Lavallade established the Janet Collins Fellowship to honor aspiring talented ballet dancers.
Please watch the video below of the incomparable Janet Collins: