Elegant and refined, Delores Browne is the epitome of a Lady. Her comportment, care for her words, and manners are the embodiment of the word. Her diminutive stature belies the fact that she is a dynamo— a magnificent powerhouse in both body and spirit. A woman of true grit and determination, the former Soloist dancer of the New York Negro Ballet (1957) is one of the lesser known pioneers of Blacks in Ballet. The history of professional black ballet dancers is grossly underrepresented in the overall canon of dance, and dancers like Delores Browne are seldom acknowledged. Her career might appear to be a blip on the radar of the history of ballet, but what it took create that blip, and the reason why it is so brief, are precisely why she should not only be included, but her role should be examined. Delores Browne is one of Philadelphia’s first black professional ballerinas and her name and story should be recognized and lifted up.

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When we talk about the legacy of Blacks in Ballet, there is an inherent duality in the conversation, the prowess of their ability, and the disappointment of how many were denied due to lack of access and opportunity. Delores Browne’s story is one that exists between those two polarities: she was able to succeed to a degree, yet not to the level of her ability. Her story is the ballet version of what African American people have lived through for centuries in this country. It is the genesis of our cultural saying “making a way out of no way.” From those who made that first journey of the middle passage, we have always been a people who have made an ocean of lemonade out of lemons.


Delores Browne’s parents Sam and Harriet were very young when they wed, and their daughter was born in 1935, a post-Depression child. She was raised in South Philadelphia, and though segregation was the law of the land at the time, Philadelphia was a city where racial politics and divisions were not uniformly instituted. People of both races lived where they could afford to, and at times that meant ethnicities lived side-by-side. Browne remembers :


The neighborhood I grew up in was a very racially-mixed, economically low income, working class people. We didn’t particularly mix in socially, but we did in school and in movies and in church. All of my schooling was totally mixed. I never went to just a single-race school. Things changed in Philadelphia after the war when people started moving away and that’s when neighborhoods became more segregated.


In the 1940’s the prevalence and accessibility to the arts in Philadelphia was, and continues to be, unparalleled. Not only was there the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Littlefield Ballet Company, but also other platforms for independent artist to perform. In fact, Browne’s neighbor was none other than opera virtuoso Marion Anderson. At the time, Anderson was traveling the world performing in places and at a level that was previously forbidden to Negroes. Her personal success was a victory for the entire race— people looked at Anderson’s flourishing career as evidence of change and possibility.


She was a hero in our neighborhood. She lived about two or three blocks from us. We, the generation I grew up in, really felt that in spite of the images around us, we were going where we wanted to. That we weren’t going to be stopped, even when we were in situations that weren’t comfortable, we didn’t feel uncomfortable with ourselves.


In Philadelphia appreciation and exposure to art often took place outside of the usual context of a theater. It was not uncommon to stumble upon dance and music performances occurring in department stores, schools, churches or other community spaces. The taking in of art was incorporated into the public school curriculum:


Philadelphia was very rich with the arts then. It might have had something to do with there being such a small population, but the teachers in the public school would take you to museums, concerts. They would do concerts. Beyond your normal classroom, you would do these outside events. We had jazz club, we also had boys and girls clubs, in addition to schooling, we had plays, choirs. So if you were a singer, it was very rich because in addition to singing in church you also had these outside outlets. Every kid I knew practically, played some kind of instrument. Everybody had something artistic. Some of the best jazz people from my era came out of that period.


The public school curriculum was comprehensive spanning far beyond the “Three R’s”.  Students were prepared to enter the adult world fully ready. It was an era where students took shop, sewing, cooking, carpentry. Skills were important, but so were social graces.


We were taught all kinds of things you can’t imagine nowadays. We had a culture coach in elementary school who taught us how to walk up to a chair, how to sit down, how to go through a door, how to enter a room.


There were an abundance of artists, concentrated in the city, with a need to supplement their incomes. Many took advantage of opportunities within the public school teaching in their artistic field, or becoming certified to teach other courses (i.e. dancers doubled as gym instructors.) Teachers were encouraged to engage students through their own interests, which resulted in the formation of various clubs that led to students being exposed to high quality training. This played a vital role in Browne’s development as an artist:


It was in junior high school and high school, kids took more than their normal classes, which was kind of wonderful. Miss Weir created this ballet club and twice a year, spring and winter, we had a performance. She evidently had taken ballet as a girl and always wanted to be in a ballet.


It was ballet club that provided an outlet for Browne’s innate love of performing and fostered her love for the form. Long before she was ever introduced to ballet, Browne had been drawn to dancing and was a natural performer. She idolized Hollywood star Cyd Charisse and when she saw her dancing on pointe she thought to herself, “I can do that!” It was dance club that made her desire a reality. From the first true taste of ballet, she loved it. And clearly it loved her.


The club was run by Miss Weir, who had the proficiency to give her ballet club members a solid foundation. In her first Spring Concert, Browne was cast as Cinderella, and her prince was a tall white girl (there were no boys in ballet club). It was at that performance of Cinderella that Marion Cuyjet, director of the Judimar School of Dance, scouted the young Brown. After the performance she offered Browne and three of her classmates scholarships to Judimar. Upon accepting that scholarship, Delores Browne set the course for the direction her life would take. Cuyjet served as teacher and mentor to the young dancer. She laid the foundation for impeccable work ethic and discipline, and showed her how to confront adversity. Most importantly, Cuyjet taught Browne to be clear and confident about who she was and the talent she possessed.


Cuyjet recognized her great potential. Physically she was gifted; mentally she was focused, determined, and courageous. These were the characteristics required if a black girl hoped to become a professional ballerina. Cuyjet was well aware of the determination it would take to succeed as a black woman in ballet. When she was 16 and a student of Essie Marie Dorsey, she was encouraged to study at the all-white Littlefield Ballet Company. Negroes were not permitted, however Cuyjet was fair-skinned enough to pass for white. “Passing” was a common practice at the time though it could be dangerous if one was found out. Dorsey herself was fair-skinned and had often passed for white to study in New York. Cuyjet was allowed to join the school and was eventually asked to perform with the company. During a performance at a department store, some of Cuyjet’s friends (who were black) recognized her and went to congratulate her after her performance. This is how the company discovered the truth of her race and she was asked not to return.


Since passing was not an option for most of her students, Cuyjet knew she would have to be creative in finding ways to get them into doors that were closed to them because of their color. She was a dauntless woman who embedded courage and fortitude in her students and gave them the necessary tools and skills both in ballet and life that would enable them to navigate the often hostile world outside of her studio.


Cuyjet was as strict disciplinarian in all things. It was not enough of you to simply be able to execute the steps well, she insisted that all of her students, like Browne, knew the correct terminology, pronunciation as well as the pedagogy. This meant teaching the French terminology:


We all had a book written by Lincoln Kirstein and Muriel Stuart called, “Classical Ballet.” It’s a rectangular book and it has wonderful drawings, and how to pronounce the French terms. You’ll see how torn up that book is because I’ve read it and re-read it, and over and over again. I never would have thought that I would have had Muriel Stuart years later as a teacher.


Cuyjet was a technical purest of form and let nothing slide. She was intent on giving her students the fullest experience of studying dance that she could. Dance at the highest academies was taught to live music and the Judimar School would have nothing less that what was proper:


She was more in the Russian method of teaching. She liked strength. She liked these kind of, what I would describe as a square, way of teaching. You don’t cut any corners. You were not allowed to cheat on any shapes. She started out with barre work, like usual, and at that point in Judimar’s history we always had live music. We had live music for ballet, we had a pianist. You had live music for tap classes. We had Dunham, you had a whole bunch of drummers for the Dunham. So, my experience before I came to New York was always live music. I never danced in a class with a record player.




Browne quickly excelled as Cuyjet’s strongest student and would eventually emerge as the “Ballerina” of the school, being cast as the lead in the large performances that the Judimar School put on as a part of the entertainment for the black cotillions. Browne was a hard worker and innate talent. She was naturally strong and had good feet and legs for ballet. Blessed with a combination of her parents genes (her father’s athleticism and her mother’s high insteps) physically she had a body that was amenable to ballet:


I didn’t really have trouble with anything in ballet. And I was so ambitious, I wanted, I wanted to just challenge everything. I wanted to jump as high as the boys. The emphasis was more on overall dancing and not having a specialty. So, Miss Marion and Mr. [John] Hines gave us jumping, big jumping like the boys do, where we were expected to do that.


Judimar teacher John Hines was somewhat of a local celebrity in the dance world. Born and raised in Philadelphia he had studied with Cuyjet and with Ms. Dorsey. Upon returning from WWII, he studied at the American Theater Wing in New York as well as with Katherine Dunham, with whom he performed. He eventually returned home to Philadelphia and began teaching at Judimar. His presence there drew males of all ages to the school.


Mr. Hines was a very popular person. So, we had more men in Judimar School than anybody in the country. We had 10 to 12 men at all times in the school. And that was from boys, from teenage boys to grown men, to young men. He was my first ballet partner in the recital.


For women, to be a ballerina you have to fall in love with the shoes, and working in them. This was the case for Browne. As a part of their training, Cuyjet allowed older students to teach the younger. This forced them to engage and understand the with the material more deeply. It also enabled students who had trouble affording lessons to be able to earn money for classes or shoes.


I love pointe work. Don’t ask me why. I love pointe work. I just thought it was the best thing and I love the music. I love being in with the classical music. It was just, it was thrilling to me. Every single class I loved. My first pair of pointe shoes were Capezios for five dollars. And I thought that was a fortune. I earned it by being an assistant and I made five dollars for that week for assisting Miss Marion with the little children, teaching the class.


While Browne excelled in Judimar as a dancer and a teacher, Cuyjet recognized that there were distinct limitations to what she should offer to Browne and her students personally, by being located in Philadelphia. In order to get the best education for herself and her students, she would have to travel to New York. Because she could easily pass for white, she used her guile to get her kids into classes that were usually segregated. It was like this: she would travel to New York passing as white to pre-register her black students for Summer classes at Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall. As the most advanced dancer, Delores was sent ahead of the group to take extra classes. She was sent with specific instructions from Cuyjet not to be turned away or diverted to other classes, and if she were, she should demand a full refund. Since Browne was only 15, she was chaperoned by a 19 year old young man named George Mills. With schedule in hand, upon checking at the front desk the woman looked at her and directed her to the Annex. More afraid of Mrs. Cuyjet then the white receptionist, the diminutive dancer summoned her courage, stood her ground and demanded that she either be admitted to the classes she was registered for, or be given her money back. The woman yielded. A few days later she was joined by Cuyjet and her other classmates and thus Ballet Arts was integrated. But it was not an easy transition.


Miss Marion actually took classes with us because she wanted us to feel safe. And it was summer, so there were people from all over the country, who did not like the idea.


Moments like these prepared Browne for the breaking down of other racial barriers including taking partnering class where white male dancers would refuse work with her:


That was humiliating. Mr. [Vladimir] Dokoudovsky, who was the teacher of the class, very famous ballet personality from the original Ballet Russe. No boys would come behind us, so Miss Marion said we will partner each other, we’ll alternate. We’ll go back and show our boys and then we’ll do the whole class when we get home. The next week, we come back, Dokoudovsky calls the girls down. He would place you. And the best man in class got behind me. Then the other men got behind the other girls, and so that was the end of that incident.


At 17, Browne auditioned and subsequently attended the School of American Ballet as one of a few students of color. There were only five people in the audition, three children and 2 adults (including Browne). Muriel Stuart, (the author of her terminology book) taught the class. For Browne this exciting time in her life was blur. What was clear was that she was accepted.


I think I was in a coma because I don’t remember anything other than walking in the building and walking out of the building. One little girl and I got in and the other people didn’t get in, but that was pretty exciting. I couldn’t wait to get to a phone box to call Judimar School and say, you know, “I’ll need the ticket. I got in. I got in.”


Although Browne was trained to squeeze the most out of every opportunity, all the hard work and talent in the world would not change the reality that as a Negro there was only so far you could go. She began to experience that reality first hand. She spent a year at the school, before returning home, a decision she regrets but she felt the writing was on the wall. At this point, it was 1953, two years before Arthur Mitchell would be hired into New York City Ballet as the first black male company member:


I’d wished I’d stayed longer. I don’t think it would have mattered because none of us were invited, and it was quite a bit before Arthur. This was 1953, so it was a good bit before Arthur got into the company. They weren’t going to take dancers of color in that company.


Browne returned home to the Judimar School. Cuyjet, pregnant with her third child, brought on Michael Lopusanski to teach the advanced ballet classes. Lopusanski was also dancing with British choreographer Antony Tudor at the Philadelphia Ballet Guild and suggested that Browne and John Jones tryout. They did and Tudor took them into the company. Browne, Jones, along with Billy Wilson, and Betsy Ann Dickerson, were part of  the original Ballet Guild.


In 1956, Browne’s dream became a reality when Ward (Edward) Flemying with the financial backing of Lucy Thorndike (a wealth New Englander) created Ballet Americana, an all black ballet company. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for the twenty one Negro ballet dancers:


And it was a vehicle for him somewhat because he was still dancing, himself, and he got wonderful choreographers, and we stayed together long enough that he got a tour for Great Britain and we were supposed to go onto Paris.


Browne, along with the others, was living a dream— she was dancing full-time in a ballet company. Browne was under a Soloist contract and thrived in the environment. It was when the company embarked on a European tour that the company’s name was changed from Ballet Americana to New York Negro Ballet (the British impresario wanted the audiences to know what was coming.) The company played all of the Royal opera houses and were well received both onstage and off. In Europe, they were artists first and Negro second.


I was 20 years old. I had never had anybody hold my sweater and everything. The stage manager would make sure everything was fine in my dressing room. I had never had anybody do that before. It was quite amazing. It was a very interesting experience because we were not treated like the other people of color in London at the time. I don’t really know why. I don’t know if it was because we were Americans.


The company was in the midst of a successful run when their funder, Thorndike, passed away unexpectedly. Not having made arrangements for the continued support of the troupe, they were forced to end the tour and come home. Although some stayed on in Europe, Browne returned home. In her naiveté, she never anticipated difficulty in finding her next dancing job. After all, she had built her resumé, had reviews, and was coming off of having a Soloist contract. She took several auditions, and often it came down to directors not being able to “match” her. At American Ballet Theater, Lucia Chase (Director and co-founder) would not even look at her. Browne thought that things were looking up when she took the MET Ballet audition, and her old teacher Antony Tudor, who was quite fond of her, was running the audition. There were 250 dancers there and Brown made it to the last 12.


Markova and Tudor who were picking, and they were talking, and talking, and talking, and I knew it was about nothing else other than how they were going to tell me they weren’t taking me. My heart fell in my shoes and so, that’s what happened.


When she was unable to land a contract and needed to support herself, she took an office job. At first she was adamant about staying in shape, but it was painful taking classes with her white counterparts who were performing while she was being an office worker. It was soul crushing to be in class and be good enough for William Dollar to ask her to demonstrate and yet not be under contract. When one of the American Ballet Theatre Principals asked her “Who are you with now?” it destroyed her to have to say “no one”.


And it hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t know what it was about that conversation or that remark. I left, I threw all my practice clothes away. I threw away my ballet slippers, all my pointe shoes. I said, “I can’t do this anymore.”


She quit.


When I stopped dancing, I decided that I would not be crazy, that I would not be harmful to myself, or to anybody else. I had made up my mind, I hadn’t done it on the spur of the moment, my life was different, and I was going to deal with it on that level. I had seen too many, believe it or not, suicides of friends from the company, those who would become alcoholics and die. One young woman, who was from New York, went up to her mother’s house in Harlem and stepped off the roof; killed herself. I said I’m not going to do that to myself. There is a life. I do have other talents and I’m just not going to destroy myself because I can’t do this. Yeah I loved it since I could remember, but I sort of made my peace with it.


Yet to this day, quitting is her greatest regret.


Her Philadelphia, Judimar roots brought her back after a three year hiatus. John Jones, whom she had partnered with in the Ballet Guild, was dancing with the Joffrey Ballet and had the opportunity to curate a concert at Lincoln Center Library Theater. He had it in his mind that Delores was his ballerina.


He called me up and he said, “Girl, we’re doing this concert.” I said, “No. I don’t even have practice clothes. I haven’t been in class in three years.” He said, “That’s okay. We got six weeks.” I said, “Six weeks! Oh my God. I haven’t had pointe shoes on. I haven’t done a turn, I haven’t done a… ” I mean, and I said, “I didn’t even go to class. Nothing.” He said, “You’ll be okay.”


With one phone call, Browne’s trajectory was shifted. Ironically after a decade of trying to be accepted in the white world with little success, it was her Philly family and the black dance community that afforded her the opportunities to thrive as an artist and performer. After that well-received concert (which was extended), Browne was flooded with offers. She was selected to perform with Ballet Alonso in Cuba under the directorship of famed ballerina Alicia Alonso. The Black Philadelphia ballet network aided in her taking a residency in Boston with Billy Wilson and Elma Lewis’ National Center for Afro-American Artists dance company. Some gigs might not have been strictly ballet, but she was dancing and doing what she loved, and she worked with choreographers who were or would go on to become key figures in the dance world, like Talley Beatty, Alvin Ailey, and Geoffrey Holder:


From that point on, then I started working with Talley Beatty. I started teaching, and I never again worked in an office. It was interesting, I replaced the office with teaching jobs and then Talley came along, and then I went to work for Talley Beatty’s company, but in the interim I also got a wonderful experience, I did an audition for Alvin Ailey for Balanchine. He choreographed, and I was one of the women, and it was on pointe, for Balanchine. And like I said, from that point then I was back.


She went on to perform with numerous choreographers including Louis Johnson and Geoffrey Holder, dancing the role of the Bride in his Dougla at Jacob’s Pillow (which would become Dance Theatre of Harlem’s signature piece.) She became a master teacher, and in 1974 she ran the first Scholarship Program at the Ailey School at Mr. Ailey’s request. She never left the world of dance again. Browne was determined to endure and she did. However the career she had was a bittersweet consolation for the one she was truly built for, and had she been white one she would have no doubt have obtained. When you have the talent, do the work, follow all the rules, and you are denied solely because of your race, it creates wounds that are hard to heal and tend to keloid. As a result of her own history, experience and what she was witness to, she has very strong feelings about the state of diversity in ballet today.


Ballet never disappoints me. I still love it as much as the very first day, first performance I ever got to see, which was Margot Fonteyn at the Academy of Music. I will never forget that my whole life. Ballet doesn’t disappoint me. What’s disappointed me is that there’s been no step forward. When I say no, I mean none forward in the major companies, and shame on us. I do not understand since we have been seriously in ballet since the early 30s, and there’s documented proof of that … Two of the original students at School of American Ballet were Betty Nichols and Talley Beatty in 1939 invited by Mr. Balanchine. I don’t understand from 1939 to today why there is such a small representation of people of color. I’m not talking only about black people. I’m talking about Asian and Hispanic, and all people of color. I don’t get it, because on the stage the only thing that counts is you’re doing your job, not the color.


Browne is not quick to forgive, and she has absolutely not forgotten. She is a woman who does not want to hear excuses, or talk of “it takes time.” She wants action, especially from the two leading American ballet companies:


I don’t even know if this is a fact, people say the only reason that  people are not in New York City Ballet and ABT specifically is because [some of ] the board doesn’t want it. I want to know who those people [board members] are. Tell me their names. Is that what you think of 2017 America?


When asked about the importance of making certain that the history of Blacks in Ballet is documented and acknowledged, she has mixed feelings as a player in this circular story for so long:


I’ve had a point where I wanted to talk to everybody. I had a point where I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had a point where I was so fed up with everybody and repeating the same stories. But I realized that there are so few of us left alive who’ve witnessed this history. We don’t talk in abstracts, we talk in fact. I was there. I was a part of it. I stood in the middle of a stage and been that person. I’m very happy that I was able to do that. Our company didn’t last long, but we’re on the boards, we’re on the records, we’re part of history. So I’m glad to be part of that…As long as I can lend my voice to keep that alive, as long as I can still speak and talk about it, I changed my mind about resisting it. I will probably go backwards again and say, “I don’t want to talk to anybody. It’s boring. Forget you.” But, maybe I’m still here with my head halfway on straight for that reason.


Browne tells a story of a fan who owned a pair of her old Bluebird pointe shoes from 1957. He had carried them with him for years to any place he thought he might run into her until recently he finally did and she signed them. He told her that he would place them right next to his autographed pair of Margot Fonteyn’s. This fan gets her gravitas—  Delores Browne is an American Ballet pioneer, a member of the invisible canon that has yet to be integrated into the larger historical landscape of the artform.