ABT Negro Unit’s Black Ritual and Lavinia Williams

Click to view American Ballet Theatre; Negro Unit and Black Ritual Orbit
Image of Lavinia Williams
Lavinia Williams, 1955. Source: Say Magazine

The American Ballet Theatre’s all-Black Negro Unit, which was founded in 1940 as part of the Federal Theatre Project, included Lavinia Williams, along with Lawaune KennardAnne Jones, Dorothy Williams, Elizabeth Thompson, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, Valerie Black, Leonore “Azelean” Cox, Edith Hurd, Mabel Hart, Maudelle Bass, Clementine Collinwood, Carole Ash, Bernice Willis, and Muriel Cook. The Negro Unit only performed one ballet during its existence—Black Ritual or Obeah, which was choreographed by Agnes de Mille and premiered in 1940.

Lavinia Williams had previously danced with fellow Negro Unit members Valerie Black, Dorothy Williams, and Edith Ross in the American Negro Ballet, which debuted in 1937 and disbanded in 1940.


Lavinia Williams and George Balanchine

Cabin in the Sky Playbill - November 1940George Balanchine didn’t create pieces for the Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre, but he served as choreographer with several members of the company during production for Broadway’s Cabin in the Sky. The cast included Lawaune Kennard, Evelyn Pilcher, Edith Ross, and Lavinia Williams of the Negro Unit as well as other notable dancers Katherine Dunham and Talley Beatty. Cabin in the Sky tells the story of Little Joe, who has earned a chance to redeem his soul after a near-death experience.


Cabin in the Sky, Playbill
Cabin in the Sky, Wikipedia


More about Lavinia Williams

Lavinia Williams was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1916 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Williams began dancing when she was only three years old through lessons from her grandmother, who worked at a dance studio in Portsmouth, Virginia. Williams’ family later moved to Virginia, and she began taking private lessons because the prejudice in the South did not allow her to dance alongside white children in the studio. Williams eventually worked with a teacher in New York named Virginia Lee, who gave Williams a scholarship to Ballet Arts School to train in classical ballet. 

In 1937, Williams joined the first American Negro Ballet with Eugene Von Grona and danced in Firebird as the 13th princess. When the American Negro Ballet disbanded in 1940, Williams went to dance with the Negro Unit. After its performance of Black Ritual, she was invited to join Katherine Dunham’s company, where she stayed until 1945, when she became a ballet instructor at the first Katherine Dunham School of Dance in Manhattan. Williams toured Europe and appeared in Broadway shows like Showboat, Finian’s Rainbow, and My Darling.

Click above to view the Lavinia Williams Orbit

In 1953 Williams moved to Haiti to continue teaching dance until 1980. She helped found the National School of Dance and the National Dance Troupe of Jamaica, along with the Haitian Institute of Folklore and Classical Dance. She then returned to the US to form her own school in Brooklyn and teach at The Ailey School. She moved back to Haiti in the mid 1980s. 

She is the mother of ballerina Sara Yarborough-Smith.


Lavinia Williams Collection, New York Public Library Archive
Lavinia Williams, 73, a Dancer, The New York Times
Women’s History Month: Lavinia Williams, Dot Complicated
An Interview with Lavinia Williams, The American Folklife Center


McClain Groff

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