Janet Collins, a Prima Ballerina
*Janet Collins, an African American ballet dancer and painter, was born on this date in 1917.
From New Orleans, Louisiana, she moved with her family to Los Angeles as a young girl, attending Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles Art Center School. As an accomplished painter, she was able to finance her relocation to New York to pursue a career in dance. In 1941, she performed with the new, but world-renowned Black dance troupe formed and directed by Katherine Dunham.
At the age of fifteen, Collins successfully auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Philharmonic, but after being told she would have to paint her face white to perform, she declined the offer. Having told her aunt what happened, she was advised, "You get back to the barre and start your City exercises. Don’t try to be good, be excellent." In 1949, Collins made her New York debut in a solo concert. As a prima ballerina in 1951, she became the first Black artist to perform on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Starring in the 1951 production of Cole Porter’s Out of This World, Collins won the Donaldson Award, signifying the best dancer on Broadway.
She remained with the Met until 1954, dancing in Carmen, Aida, La Gioconda, and Samson and Delilah, after which she toured the United States and Canada in solo dance concerts. Having taught at several colleges and dance institutions in New York and California, she retired and resided in Seattle. Janet Collins died in June 2003 in Forth Worth, Texas.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
Today in American History