Whenever Debra Austin jumped, she soared—and not only onstage. Invited by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet at age 16, she was the first African-American woman to enter the company. She later joined Zurich Ballet, returning to the U.S. to accept a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982—a groundbreaking milestone for a black dancer outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time. In this clip from a 1987 production of Giselle, her beautifully pliant feet and effortless ballon shine through the fuzzy video quality. In her Act I variation, the classical, understated purity of her port de bras belie the sheer technical strength of her attitude pirouettes and hops on pointe. Then watch, at 4:00, how she appears to fly through the air as a spectral wili, only to rise ever so delicately for a series of fluttering ronds de jambe en l'air.
For more evidence of this ballerina's phenomenal jump, check out this clip from La Syphide here.
Austin retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 1990, and now serves as a ballet master for Carolina Ballet. Below, she talks about what it was like for her to be one of the few ballerinas of color during her dance career, and her thoughts on how to promote more diversity in the ballet world. Happy #Throwback Thursday!