Ballet Stars
Raven Wilkinson in Les Sylphides. Photo Courtesy Wilkinson.

Ballerina Raven Wilkinson passed away on Monday at her home in New York City at age 83. Wilkinson is best known as the first African American woman to dance full-time with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and as a cherished mentor to Misty Copeland.

Raven Wilkinson presenting Misty Copeland with the Dance Magazine Award in 2014. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima for Dance Magazine.

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Ballet Stars
Raven Wilkinson in "Les Sylphides" as illustrated by Leda Schubert. Photos Courtesy Wilkinson.

When children's book writer and illustrator Leda Schubert first reached out to Raven Wilkinson about writing a book on her life, Wilkinson had qualms. She was worried that the racism she experienced as an African American dancer touring the South with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1960s might scare the intended audience of 6-9 year olds. With time, Wilkinson came to an understanding. "If we keep hiding everything from our children we'll never get these things solved," she told me in an interview. The result is a picture book, released earlier this month, titled Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson.

Trailblazer opens with a foreword by Misty Copeland, who has has often cited Wilkinson as a mentor. Copeland's words are accompanied by a photo of Wilkinson presenting her with a bouquet onstage after her Swan Lake debut with American Ballet Theatre. "Since learning about Raven, sharing her journey and those of the many black ballerinas who have paved the way has become part of my mission," writes Copeland. And indeed, Copeland's fame and success has pushed Wilkinson's story into the public eye.

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