The Swans of Harlem

Karen Valby

30 April 2024
352 pages


For fans of Hidden Figures and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

'The kind of history I wish I learned as a child dreaming of the stage!' MISTY COPELAND

'Vibrant, propulsive and inspiring' TIA WILLIAMS

Harlem 1969; it's the height of the Civil Rights era and the community is still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King. Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, takes his protest to the stage and establishes the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Here begins the story of the five extraordinary women at the heart of this book.

Both a group biography and a story of a particular time, this is a book about ballet, the enduring allure of ballet for young girls, and about how these pioneers broke into a world that was closed to them and changed ideas of what a classical dancer could be. It is about the heart-breaking impact of the AIDS epidemic which claimed the lives of so many of the male dancers. It's about racism and activism through art. And it's about the eternal glamour of ballet; these swans appeared at the grandest opera houses and theatres, dancing at the White House, and even for the Queen. Their fans included Mick Jagger and they performed alongside the likes of Michael Jackson and Josephine Baker.

But most importantly it tells the universal story of female friendship, and in particular how these five young women formed a bond - while experimenting with different ways of dying ballet shoes and tights to match their skin tones - which still endures many decades later.
Until Valby's utterly absorbing, flawlessly-researched book, I never knew the story of the original Dance Theater 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!
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!
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