The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History (Hardcover)

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Description


A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK • The forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas and their fifty-year sisterhood, a legacy erased from history—until now.

“This is the kind of history I wish I learned as a child dreaming of the stage!” —Misty Copeland, author of Black Ballerinas: My Journey to Our Legacy

“Utterly absorbing, flawlessly-researched…Vibrant, propulsive, and inspiring, The Swans of Harlem is a richly drawn portrait of five courageous women whose contributions have been silenced for too long!” —Tia Williams, author of A Love Song for Ricki Wilde


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 company 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.

Praise For…


A Most Anticipated Book from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Goodreads, The New York Post,Town and Country, AARP, Cosmopolitan, The Week, The Millions, Book Riot, and Arlington Magazine

“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

“Until Valby’s utterly absorbing, flawlessly-researched book, I never knew the story of the original Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas—and now, I demand that their lives be taught in schools! Valby finally sheds light on these towering dance pioneers, all of whom triumphed as dancers in a world that didn’t believe Black people had a place in the classical art form. Vibrant, propulsive, and inspiring, The Swans of Harlem is a richly drawn portrait of five courageous women whose contributions have been silenced for too long!”
Tia Williams, New York Times-bestselling author of Seven Days in June

“Valby introduces and celebrates the extraordinary lives and careers of ballerinas Lydia Abarca-Mitchell, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin and Marcia Sells…Swans burns with the dancers’ distinct sense of urgency and purpose…Valby provides an absorbing glimpse into this world through vivid details of the women’s lives as artists, wives, mothers, friends and Black women. More than a chronicle of dance history, the book is a testament to the enduring power of sisterhood and female friendships, especially in the face of discrimination and exclusion…The book also works to set the record straight, ensuring the women take their rightful place in history.”
Ms. Magazine

“A loving tribute.”
Smithsonian Magazine
 
“Five of the world's greatest dancers helped change the face of ballet—they performed at the White House, they appeared on Broadway, they were on the covers of magazines…This insightful history from Karen Valby tells the stories of Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton, and Marcia Sells, celebrating the contributions they made to their art form and giving them the recognition they so greatly deserve.”
Town and Country Magazine

“Valby’s group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world.”
The Millions

"A vibrant and captivating look at five trailblazing women."
Arlington Magazine

“For those who love Hidden Figures and are interested in dance and culture…Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamor and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of their historic careers, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.”
Texas Lifestyle Magazine

“Vibrant…A captivating corrective to an often-whitewashed history.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“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

“Engaging and insightful… A powerful narrative of professional triumphs and personal challenges that celebrates Black excellence in ballet. Anyone who appreciates dance will be enriched and inspired by the stories of these five intrepid dancers.”
Booklist

“There is joy in the way the women discuss their decades-long friendships and trailblazing performances in this book. Valby gives each dancer space for their stories to naturally flow, writing them as fully realized individuals with their own hopes and dreams…Heartwarming.”
Library Journal
Product Details
ISBN: 9780593317525
ISBN-10: 0593317521
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: April 30th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English