Janet Collins and Carmen de Lavallade

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Janet Collins was not only a cousin to Carmen de Lavallade, but also her source of inspiration for taking up dance. Carmen de Lavallade described Collins as a great example of someone who never gave up, especially in her pursuit to become a ballet dancer, which was nearly impossible during her time due to the stigma that people of color were not suited for ballet dancing. The presence and command that Collins displayed was what inspired and motivated de Lavallade’s work. De Lavallade also eventually succeeded her cousin Collins as a principal dancer for the Metropolitan Opera.


Carmen de Lavallade tells the story of her cousin and “star in the sky,” Janet Collins, PBS: American Masters
Carmen de Lavallade, Kennedy Center

More about Carmen de Lavallade

Image of Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade was born in New Orleans in 1931 and raised in Los Angeles. She studied under Melissa Blake and Italian ballerina Carmelita Maracci, and her performance career began at age 17 with Lester Horton Dance Theater, where she danced with her high school friend Alvin Ailey. She also studied acting, painting, sculpting, music, and design, as Horton encouraged his dancers to interact with other art forms as well.

Also alongside Ailey, de Lavallade performed in House of Flowers on Broadway, the musical that introduced her to her husband, Geoffrey HolderIn 1956, she was featured in Samson and Delilah and Aida at the Metropolitan Opera. 

De Lavallade also appeared in several television shows, off-Broadway productions, and films including Carmen Jones (which featured several members of Negro Unit of Ballet Theatre) and Odds Against Tomorrow, among others.

She toured with Ailey’s company in Europe and Asia, a tour which was sometimes billed as “de Lavallade-Ailey American Dance Company,” and performed in Agnes de Mille’s The Four Marys and The Frail Quarry with Ballet Theatre (now known as American Ballet Theatre). She was a principal dancer with both John Butler’s company and with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, following in the footsteps of cousin Janet Collins.

De Lavallade taught at the Yale Repertory Theater and Yale School of Drama as its resident choreographer and performer. 

Her choreography credits include Porgy and Bess, Die Meistersinger, and Rusalka for the Metropolitan Opera as well as pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

Agnes de Mille, Alvin Ailey, Glen Tetley, Lester Horton, John Butler, and Geoffrey Holder have all created roles for de Lavallade. She also “holds the record for the longest performing career at Jacob’s Pillow,” which ran from 1953 to 2014. Her awards include the Dance Magazine Award (1964), an honorary doctorate from Juilliard (2007), the Duke Ellington Fellowship Award, and the Dance USA Award (2010). 

Ailey said of her, “Whatever you want her to dance, she will find a way to do it. Choreographers also love her because she has a solid technique and a brilliant, unsurpassable talent for interpreting a ballet.”


Women in Dance: Carmen de Lavallade, Jacob’s Pillow
Carmen de Lavallade, Wikipedia
Carmen de Lavallade, The Kennedy Center
Biography: Carmen de Lavallade, Thirteen

Helen Chen

Madeline Crawford

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