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I received this book for free, this does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review

“But what about Grandma?”

The Swans of Harlem was a reclaiming of historical Blackness in ballet as told through five women who were at the forefront. Lydia Abarca, Sheila Rohan, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Karlya Shelton-Benjamin, and Marcia Sells were part of the founding core at Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem. If you're a fan of ballet, then you've probably heard of Arthur Mitchell, a dancer himself who broke color barriers and after Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, decides to start and build DTH, with a board including Cicely Tyson, Brock Peters, George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, and Charles De Rose. Such powerful figures helped to contribute to DTH's success, along with philanthropists' donations, that the company was in constant need of, but the heart of the success lies in the dancers who sacrificed, worked, and understood the importance of what their mission was. Told in three acts, the book successfully tells their stories and brings you back to a world of the Civil Rights Movement, it's lingering effects, and the reclaiming of history.

He would build a ballet school in Harlem, the neighborhood that had raised him up. And because children deserve role models who show them what is possible, he would simultaneously establish the first permanent Black professional ballet company.
Art is activism. Let the gorgeous lines of his dancers’ bodies serve as fists in the air.

The first Act was all about the building of the DTH and how each of the five women entered Arthur Mitchell's world. I enjoyed how we really got to not only know these women's individual stories but a part of their families. One thing is clear while reading this, rarely does anyone do it alone and the support these women's families gave them, made all the difference; it's not just the story of these women but generations. I also enjoyed how, while Mr. Mitchell was celebrated for his strength and perseverance, he wasn't canonized, he was a living breathing man who's personality was formed in a different era and had all the highs and lows of it (colorism is discussed). It added to the carrying over and intertwining of generational butterfly effects.

“We all understood this to be a higher calling,” says McKinney-Griffith. “Suddenly that step on pointe made a difference. We were a group of brown people, of all different shades from different cities and countries. For those of us who’d felt for so long adrift and like a lonely standard bearer— to look around and feel the power of numbers was just extraordinary. We were en masse, so we were protected. Can you imagine the energy that freed up? The freedom to just focus on our craft. We never had to justify to each other our right to ballet.”

The second Act, focused more on the five women's individual stories and when they finally left DTH to move on and explore other avenues in life. Intermingled with the individual women's stories were chapters that also continued the timeline of what was happening at DTH. This timeline see-sawing tripped me up as a reader a few times and I thought hurt the flow of the book.

When the evening’s moderator, WBUR culture and arts reporter Cristela Guerra, asks the members of the Legacy Council to discuss the importance of telling their stories now at this moment in history, McKinney-Griffith responds with terrific gravity. “Because we all have a voice,” she says, looking intently around the room. “And we all need to project that out into the world. Otherwise someone else is going to write our history. Or not.”

Act three and the conclusion of the book brought the eventual closing of Dance Theatre of Harlem (due to lack of funds) but the creation of the 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy Council. After seeing Misty Copeland hailed as the first Black ballerina (Copeland often works to praise those that came before her), erasing all of DTH's successes, which are accounted in the book, had these five women wanting to reclaim their spot in history, along with the many others that worked to make DTH a success (there's a touching moment where the women talk about the men of the company and how hard the AIDs crisis in the '80s and '90s hit them). Through their work with the Council, new names and trailblazers are being rediscovered and their history brought to light and preserved. Even if you're not a fan of ballet (there's terms used that assume you have at least a rudimentary understanding of the world) this was a great cultural and historical door into a moment in time that helped build and feed into the next generation of Black dancers.

He wasn’t a Black man who dared to dance ballet. He was a dancer who dared ballet to see and celebrate his Blackness.
… (més)
WhiskeyintheJar | Hi ha 4 ressenyes més | Apr 30, 2024 |
Title: The Swans of Harlem
Author: Karen Valby
Publisher: Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor, Pantheon
Reviewed By: Arlena Dean
Rating: Five
"The Swans of Harlem" by Karen Valby

My Thoughts:

This was my first read about these five black ballerinas, 'The Swans of Harlem.' I found the story very interesting, especially about their lives, the founding dancers of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and their work with Arthur Mitchell. These women and even men danced on the stages of the United States and Europe, and we learned some of their culture and history through their contributions to the art. These ballerinas were fascinating dancers, although they were not accepted during the Civil Rights Movement. This story was a beautiful and essential part of our Black History Arts.

'The Swans of Harlem' was a fascinating story, and I am so glad I could read it. And oh my, that ending was superb. A must-read, that is all that is left to say about this novel.

Thank you, NetGalley and Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor, for the ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
… (més)
arlenadean | Hi ha 4 ressenyes més | Apr 24, 2024 |
Wow! Such a tour de force and engrossing read! Five fine ballerinas of color lost to the annals of history. That is, until now.

Karen Valby has done a spectacular job of recounting the lives of five amazing women of grace and inordinate strength. Women who endured hardship, pain, humiliation, and loss - all for the sake of their passion - to be a classical dancer. Through the courage and sheer grit of these women, today's women of color can rise to even greater heights in the classical ballet world. They were the pioneers of the Ballet Theater of Harlem and set the course for so many dancers to follow in their footsteps. These are their stories and they're worth every moment spent in the pages of this inspiring book.

The writing is solid and the research vast. The reader really gets to know each of the celebrated dancers; their motivations, challenges, fears, desires and depth. They are smart, dedicated and driven artists. As hard as each dancer is on themself, driving themselves toward perfection, collectively they lift one another up and have created a life-long bond and support system. Their devotion to their art and to one another is inspiring. But their stories don't end when they step off the stage at the end of their dance careers. The lives they step into when the footlights dim are equally inspiring, if not even more so.

This was an engaging, inspiring and beautifully delivered story of five amazing women. I'm glad I got the chance to meet them and hear their compelling stories.

I am grateful to Pantheon Books for having provided a complimentary copy of this book through NetGalley. Their generosity, however, has not influenced this review - the words of which are mine alone.

Publisher: Pantheon Books
Publication date: April 30, 2024
Number of Pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0593317525
… (més)
KateBaxter | Hi ha 4 ressenyes més | Mar 7, 2024 |
historical-figures, historical-places-events, historical-research, history-and-culture, ballet-training, ballerina, dance, dedication, goal-oriented, striving*****

I think that these women and others have not had enough press over the years (not to mention encouragement). Ballet afficionados have no excuse, nor do the rest of us. I have known some about Maria Tallchief for many years, but nothing at all about these dedicated performers. The study is from childhood and further growth, and the calling to do whatever it takes despite the antagonistic attitudes around them to their professional debuts and performances. Excellent presentation and deep study written in a was that brings the information deep into the reader's soul.
I requested and received a free temporary EARC from Knopf, Pantheon, Vintage, and Anchor, Pantheon via NetGalley. Thank you!
This title will be released on April 30, 2024.
… (més)
jetangen4571 | Hi ha 4 ressenyes més | Feb 15, 2024 |


½ 3.6

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