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 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.
“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
“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 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