First Negro Classical Ballet and Bernice Harrison

First Negro Classical Ballet Constellation
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Graham Johnson and Bernice Harrison execute an arabesque in the classical style of Russian ballet. Courtesy of the Joseph Rickard Papers, Huntington Library.

Bernice Harrison was the mother of the African-American girl whom Joseph Rickard saw being turned away from ballet classes, the instance that initially sparked his interest in creating the First Negro Classical Ballet. Harrison’s daughter was one of the first pupils of Joseph Rickard’s company. Harrison became one of the prima ballerinas of the company after taking classes at the school. She was a former seamstress and mother of three who would bring her kids to rehearsal. Critics celebrated Harrison for being a leading ballet dancer who was also a mother. She became a symbol of the troupe and performed in many productions as prima ballerina. The company’s first all-Black performance, sponsored by the Alpha Delta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at the Sartu Theater, included Harrison as the prima ballerina. Harrison was also a part of the company’s debut in the Assistance League Playhouse with a program of a piece called L’ Harlequin, a new version of the opera Pagliacci, and Harlot’s House. She also danced as a co-principle alongside Yvonne Miller at the Philharmonic Auditorium and was called one of the most promising ballet artists of America. Harrison premiered in many of the company’s productions throughout its existence.

Bernice Harrison emphasized for her “poise and grace,” while practicing ballet four hours per day as a mother, was featured in the April 1952 issue of Ebony magazine.
Bernice Harrison practicing with James Truitte. Courtesy of the Joseph Rickard Papers, Huntington Library.











More about Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison is the first recorded African-American woman to perform en pointe. Many believe Janet Collins was the first African-American prima ballerina in America since she premiered with the New York Metropolitan Opera company in 1952. But, even though the First Negro Classical Ballet was smaller, Harrison predates Collins by six years.


Dance Moves: An African American Ballet Company in Postwar Los Angeles, Pacific Historical Review
Negro Ballet in Local Bow, Los Angeles Sentinel
Alphas To Present Ballet, Los Angeles Sentinel
First Negro Classic Ballet A Huge Success, Los Angeles Sentinel

Faith Rodriguez

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