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Reviews of The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby

The Swans of Harlem

Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

by Karen Valby

The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby X
The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby
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  • Published:
    Apr 2024, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Book Summary

The forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas and their fifty-year sisterhood, a legacy erased from history—until now.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lydia Abarca was a Black prima ballerina with a major international dance company—the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a troupe of women and men who became each other's chosen family. She was the first Black company ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine, an Essence cover star; she was cast in The Wiz and in a Bob Fosse production on Broadway. She performed in some of ballet's most iconic works with other trailblazing ballerinas, including the young women who became her closest friends—founding Dance Theatre of Harlem members Gayle McKinney-Griffith and Sheila Rohan, as well as first-generation dancers Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells.

These Swans of Harlem performed for the Queen of England, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder, on the same bill as Josephine Baker, at the White House, and beyond. But decades later there was almost no record of their groundbreaking history to be found. Out of a sisterhood that had grown even deeper with the years, these Swans joined forces again—to share their story with the world.

Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamour and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of both their historic careers and the sustaining, grounding power of female friendship, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.

Prologue

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lydia Abarca was a Black prima ballerina for a major international company, starring in iconic works like Balanchine's "Agon" and "Swan Lake," Jerome Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," and William Dollar's "Le Combat." Critics described her as "the dreaming soul of dance," and "a living ode to beauty, incapable of an ugly gesture or a false movement." She was the first Black ballerina ever to grace the cover of Dance magazine. She performed for queens and kings, in the movie production of The Wiz, for Bob Fosse on Broadway. She was one of Revlon's original Charlie's Girl models. An Essence cover star. The object of affection for everyone from Mick Jagger to David Bowie. Roses collected at her feet around the globe.

Half a century later, during Black History Month, Abarca's thirty-two-year-old daughter Daniella wanted to brag about her mother to their friends and family. She went looking for evidence of all Abarca had done—all the ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Journalist Karen Valby's first book, The Swans of Harlem, introduces readers to the little-known history of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell. Using interviews and research from print archives, Valby deftly crafts information into a compelling narrative centered around the company's ballerinas. The fact that none of the names were familiar to me demonstrated the need for the book's existence. I really enjoy histories like this that focus intimately on a small group of people. My biggest complaint is that the book needed a stronger sense of organization and fewer characters to keep track of. Despite those concerns, the book is easy to read and offers a vivid history to get caught up in...continued

Full Review Members Only (683 words)

(Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin).

Media Reviews

Arlington Magazine
A vibrant and captivating look at five trailblazing women.

BookPage
Remarkable…Spirited…Valby's extensive interviews with the dancers lend an intimacy to the narrative, the details of their lives elevated and their perspectives clearly observed. The women of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council are determined to bring their story out of obscurity. In The Swans of Harlem, they become unforgettable.

Ms. Magazine
Valby introduces and celebrates the extraordinary lives and careers of ballerinas Lydia Abarca-Mitchell, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin and Marcia Sells…Swans burns with the dancers' distinct sense of urgency and purpose…Valby provides an absorbing glimpse into this world through vivid details of the women's lives as artists, wives, mothers, friends and Black women. More than a chronicle of dance history, the book is a testament to the enduring power of sisterhood and female friendships, especially in the face of discrimination and exclusion…The book also works to set the record straight, ensuring the women take their rightful place in history.

New York Times Book Review
If [The Swans of Harlem] were just a quest for cultural redress, the result might have been a dusty scroll of the Swans' ballet bona fides. It's by getting personal that it leaps high…Valby skillfully maps the ugliness of a segregated art form…All of this [history] is absorbing. Yet it's the odd details that shine brightest…There's so much meaning and humanity in this kind of minutiae…The moral of this important and tear-stained book is actually a reminder: Bare oneself, fly into the grandest of jetés and live free.

Texas Lifestyle Magazine
For those who love Hidden Figures and are interested in dance and culture…Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamor and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of their historic careers, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.

The Telegraph
A remarkable underdog story…This feels, rightly, like the beginning of a larger conversation…There are so many stories still to tell; these efforts might help the next black ballerina to find her wings.

Smithsonian Magazine
A loving tribute.

The Millions
Valby's group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world.

Town and Country
Five of the world's greatest dancers helped change the face of ballet—they performed at the White House, they appeared on Broadway, they were on the covers of magazines…This insightful history from Karen Valby tells the stories of Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton, and Marcia Sells, celebrating the contributions they made to their art form and giving them the recognition they so greatly deserve.

Kirkus Reviews
A skilled storyteller with an eye for significant details and thematic complexity…[A] dynamic, tumultuous, and inspiring journey of the five central ballerinas, the book is deeply researched and full of heart. A rich, detailed, and complex history of Harlem's first prima ballerinas.

Library Journal
There is joy in the way the women discuss their decades-long friendships and trailblazing performances in this book. Valby gives each dancer space for their stories to naturally flow, writing them as fully realized individuals with their own hopes and dreams…Heartwarming.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Vibrant…A captivating corrective to an often-whitewashed history.

Author Blurb Margo Jefferson, author of Constructing a Nervous System
These five original Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas fell in love with an art form that most of America believed was white and should remain so. Upon Arthur Mitchell's founding of an all-Black company in 1969, they eagerly took their places at the barre and challenged themselves to the utmost. They triumphed. They showed that Blacks could not only excel at classical ballet but could also shape the art in their own vibrant image. Karen Valby weaves their stories together as a choreographer would: the women form an ensemble, yet each gets her own riveting solo. It's thrilling to watch as they join forces at last and claim their unique place in American ballet's past, present and future.

Author Blurb Misty Copeland, New York Times-bestselling author of Black Ballerinas: My Journey To Our Legacy
Karen Valby's The Swans of Harlem brings to life the stories of Black dancers whose contributions to the world of ballet were silenced, marginalized, and otherwise erased. Karen introduces readers to important figures of our past, while inspiring us to courageously chase our dreams. This is the kind of history I wish I learned as a child dreaming of the stage!

Author Blurb Tia Williams, New York Times-bestselling author of Seven Days in June
Until Valby's utterly absorbing, flawlessly-researched book, I never knew the story of the original Dance Theatre of Harlem ballerinas—and now, I demand that their lives be taught in schools! Valby finally sheds light on these towering dance pioneers, all of whom triumphed as dancers in a world that didn't believe Black people had a place in the classical art form. Vibrant, propulsive, and inspiring, The Swans of Harlem is a richly drawn portrait of five courageous women whose contributions have been silenced for too long!

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Beyond the Book

Popular Dances of the 1960s-70s and Ballet

In The Swans of Harlem, Karen Valby explains how Arthur Mitchell sought to make ballet appealing and relevant to a Black audience. He and his dancers regularly visited schools to give talks and performances. Mitchell loved to point out how ballet could help the students in their daily lives. He'd tell the boys how much higher they could jump during basketball if they learned to jeté. He would demonstrate how you could find ballet anywhere and would break down the latest dance trends to prove it—while making ballet more approachable at the same time.

One popular dance was the "Camel Walk." That was a ragtime dance popular in vaudeville in the 1920s, but it had a resurgence in the '60s and '70s as a retro craze—one that ...

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Read-Alikes

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