Debra Austin has a special place in dance history: In 1971, at age 16, she was the first African American woman George Balanchine hired into New York City Ballet. After nine years with the company and two years with Zurich Ballet, she joined Pennsylvania Ballet as a principal dancer, making her the first female African American principal hired by a major U.S. ballet company outside of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Famous for her buoyant jump, Austin's vast repertoire ranged from classical roles to Balanchine to Hans Van Manen. Since 1997, she's been passing on her knowledge as ballet master at Carolina Ballet, a company led by her former director at PAB, Robert "Ricky" Weiss.
In honor of her achievements, Texas Christian University's School of Classical and Contemporary Dance has named Austin as this year's Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair. She started at TCU this week, where she's been leading master classes and cross-department collaborations, attending cultural events and giving lectures. We caught up with Austin prior to her residency to talk about her extraordinary career.