Arthur Mitchell: Harlem's Ballet Trailblazer

Arthur Mitchell, Artist Extraordinaire > "Before Dance Theatre of Harlem," Joselli Audain Deans



Joselli Audain Deans


This essay is based on an article commissioned for the volume The Oxford Handbook of Black Studies edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2021.  It is published here with permission.

The topic of diversity in ballet has been much in the news during the past several years, including the absence of African American female dancers from the rosters of major national and regional companies in the United States.  For the most part the discussion has focused on the exclusionary practices of the American ballet world.  How these practices operate remains a critical concern.  However, it is equally critical to examine the careers of black ballerinas who found success especially in the decades before the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a predominantly African American ballet company, came into existence in 1969. One such ballerina is Delores Browne, a principal dancer in the short-lived New York Negro Ballet,  whose remarkable achievements have been largely ignored.  This essay seeks to bring her story to a wider audience, elucidating the challenges she faced during her training and entry into the professional ballet world. Browne was a contemporary of Arthur Mitchell, and it is tempting to compare her career path with that of his and other African American male contemporaries. Drawing on four long interviews that I conducted with Browne in 1999-2001, in addition to many informal conversations, I trace her career from its beginnings in the late 1940s, when she took her first ballet classes, to her premature retirement as a dancer a decade later and her return to the concert stage in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[1]

Delores Browne was born on March 30, 1935 in Philadelphia, the daughter of Harriet (Wilson) and Samuel James Brown.  Samuel Brown worked in the defense industry during World War II and later for the City of Philadelphia, while his wife held various secretarial positions.[2]  As a child, Browne fell in love with ballet, and she cultivated that love by saving the dimes she earned to attend movie musicals. When she was nine, she told her parents that she wanted to study ballet, but because they could not afford lessons, an aunt offered to pay for her classes. Delores and a friend went to every dance school in Center City—downtown Philadelphia—only to be told again and again that she would be placed on a waiting list. Nobody ever called back. Browne was too young to understand what that meant; although public schools and public transportation were integrated in Philadelphia, most social and cultural activities were not. Meanwhile, her mother fostered her aspirations and gave her the confidence to pursue her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. As Browne commented, that confidence arose from her mother sheltering her from the reality that “the waiting list” was code for exclusion.  Four years would pass before Browne was able to take her first lesson as a member of the racially integrated Ballet Club at Barratt Middle School.

When Browne encountered Marion Cuyjet in 1949, she had just turned fourteen, and her training began in earnest.  Cuyjet, a light-skinned African American woman, had begun her formal dance training at the age of thirteen with Essie Marie Dorsey, an African American dancer/teacher, in Philadelphia. Cuyjet went on to study with the Littlefield Ballet, passing for white, until she was discovered. Her professional dance aspirations thwarted, she decided to become a teacher herself. In 1948, she opened her own school of dance, Judimar, the first African American business located in downtown Philadelphia.[3]  As a Barratt alumna, Cuyjet wanted to offer scholarships to Judimar to two talented African American girls in the Ballet Club. The instructor, a Mrs. Ware, selected two girls but urged Cuyjet to give Browne an opportunity as well because she worked hard.  Cuyjet agreed.  Browne later said that receiving the scholarship was one of the highlights of her career. Her brother, Samuel Brown, Jr., recalled that once she started training with the goal of pursuing a professional career, dance became his sister’s life.[4]

At Judimar, Browne took ballet, tap, and Dunham technique[5] classes twice a week, but she did not keep up the tap classes for very long.  "The long and short of it was I had in my head I was a ballet dancer….I loved Dunham, so I would throw myself wholeheartedly into it, but anything else I really did not throw myself into and I did not like tap at all."[6]  As her studies advanced, Browne added classes in pointe and partnering to her weekly program. 

Browne quickly established herself as one of Judimar's most promising talents. After only six months at the school, she danced the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty for Judimar’s recital at Fleisher Auditorium in South Philadelphia. The following year she danced another lead, the title role in Cinderella (1950), and in 1951 appeared in a divertissement in Carmen. Marie McLeod, another Judimar student, remembers Browne as the "prima ballerina at Judimar." Delores was a fantastic dancer….She had it all….Although she was a technician…she was beautiful when she danced.  When she hit that stage there could be three other dancers on the stage, but your eyes would focus on Delores.[7]  "What was striking about Delores was her attitude, how she carried herself," her brother recalled.[8] 

In 1952 Browne danced the role of Odette, the “Swan Queen,” in the second act of Judimar’s Swan Lake; Alice Mays danced the role of the “Magic Swan” – or Black Swan – in Act III.  According to Browne, Swan Lake held special significance for Cuyjet. Dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen explains that Swan Lake "exhibits the classical style at its height: its movement is predominantly marked by outwardness, verticality, skill, clarity, objectivity, grace."[9]  Performing Swan Lake was a major achievement for Judimar and its students. For the production, Cuyjet engaged George Chaffee, a former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer, to stage as much of the traditional choreography as the students could handle. All four acts were performed, with Browne dancing the traditional “White Swan” choreography with her partner (and instructor) John Hines.  Chaffee was very impressed by the production and the abilities of the Judimar students.[10]  A critic writing in the Philadelphia Tribune, an African American newspaper, commented:  "Especially bouquets must be awarded to Delores Brown, who portrayed the part of Odette, the Swan Queen.  Her dancing was superb in detail and impressive in completed motion."[11]  Browne was rapidly advancing toward her goal of a professional career.

Cuyjet also found opportunities for her students to dance at schools, B’nai B'rith and Philadelphia Cotillion Society events, the Dra Mu Opera Company, the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh, and other organizations, supplementing their training. Browne treasured these experiences. "What was so fantastic is that we were teenagers, totally unaware how special that was [performing], thrilled to be doing it, loving to dance every minute of it, getting wonderful, wonderful experience but just not aware of really how special some of that was and unusual – what this woman was doing."[12]  The exposure that Cuyjet provided was exceptional. She approached her dream of training professional dancers with the highest expectations for her students. As a result, they rose to the occasion and performed professional-quality work.  

In the summer of 1951, Miss Marion, as she was called at Judimar, decided it was time to expose her most gifted students to ballet in New York, the American dance capital. She enrolled them in classes at the Dunham School and at Ballet Arts, a professional studio above Carnegie Hall where prominent New York ballet teachers taught classes. Cuyjet and her husband would drive up to New York with the students and return at the end of the day. With the money that she received from her father, Browne was able to stay overnight at the "Y" and take additional classes. She told me that during that time in New York there was de facto segregation. She recounts the story of her first day at Ballet Arts, explaining how race prejudice operated in New York studios of the early 1950s.  

"That was an incredible day. I came to New York with the illusion that New York was not like any place else in the world. I don't know where I got the notion. I thought I could just go into wherever and do what everybody else was doing. Cuyjet was so clever. She anticipated everything…and went ahead and paid all the tuition. She gave me directions on what to do, how to get to the studio, what time, what classes to take. So I presented myself—the class card was already paid for—presented the card, and the woman tells me it must have been a mistake, that I am supposed to go to the Annex. And I tell her then, "You have to give me back my father's money because Miss Marion told me that this was my schedule…. And if I'm not going to do that then you need to refund my money and I need to go home." So she shuffled through some papers and suddenly, "Oh, Oh, Oh, of course" [indicating that she had found the registration].  So that first day was real hairy because I was the only one there….I knew what she had done. And I knew why she didn't come with me. She needed me to be tough enough, but she also needed me to be backed up.  She wouldn't send me with the check and the schedule.  She sent me with it all done, so I didn't have to think about anything but just to be present and do the class."[13]

Browne and several other Judimar girls attended ballet technique, pointe, and partnering classes at Ballet Arts, where they were first introduced to character dance. Cuyjet herself took class with her students to encourage them and further her own professional development.  "Thank goodness she [Cuyjet] was taking the partnering class with us that first day…. None of the boys would come up and touch us. Cuyjet said, “Take a hold of each other.  We're in here; we are going to learn what they're doing, and when we get back we'll show our boys…. Learn the steps and listen to what they are saying to do."  So we did that.  The next week when we came back—[Vladimir] Dokoudovsky placed us again.  He always placed me down stage in the center of the studio, and then the best male in the class came over and extended his hand. So some conversation went on somewhere because that next week we had partners."[14]  Although Browne has no direct knowledge of what had caused the male students' behavior to change, it is safe to assume that Dokoudovsky spoke to some key students if not the entire class.  Such experiences prepared Cuyjet's students for the competitiveness and biased practices of the 1950s dance world.

For Browne the most important aspect of Judimar training was the technique that she acquired:  "It was the most and best training that I ever had in my life."[15] Cuyjet required her students to know basic ballet history and correct ballet terminology. As Browne recalls, “She had a philosophy that you had to be able to read and write the technique you were executing physically. Periodically, she would drag out a blackboard and write down the names of the steps.”[16] The vocabulary would be reinforced for the more advanced students because Cuyjet would appoint them as teaching assistants in classes for younger students. Cuyjet would personally train them in pedagogy by having the student-teachers adjust arms, feet, and so on as she taught.  Only after being thoroughly trained does Browne remember teaching classes of her own.  When Browne was about sixteen years old, she taught a young Judith Jamison, the future dancer, choreographer, and artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  Browne recalled that scholarship students were given chores to do like sweeping the studios, cleaning mirrors or the bathroom, or temporarily working at the desk.  However, Cuyjet always paid student-teachers for the classes they taught.  "Cuyjet felt that that was your gift and that was a different experience."[17]

A strict disciplinarian with rules about punctuality, dress, and behavior, Cuyjet was also a nurturer who placed her students' success in life at the heart of her pedagogy. Delores Browne spoke passionately about her mentor. "Cuyjet was very tough, very tough, very encouraging, and incredibly enthusiastic and made the class feel like nothing was beyond you….You never thought that there was anything that you could not do. I never remember the atmosphere being negative."[18]

Cuyjet established Judimar to give blacks the opportunity to train in dance and specifically in ballet. In an interview with dance historian Melanye White-Dixon, Cuyjet stated,  "I wanted to make as many ballerinas as possible, but they had to be brown-skinned. They had to look Negro. We were not calling ourselves Black then. If she could pass for White, forget it. That would not give me anything. Her picture had to tell the whole story. I never worried about the light-skinned girls. It was the brown-skinned girls I had to open doors for."[19] Cuyjet chose Delores Browne with her cinnamon skin to be her first ballerina.

On a visit to Philadelphia, Muriel Stuart, a former Pavlova dancer who taught at the School of American Ballet (SAB), met with Cuyjet to discuss the school’s upcoming auditions.  Cuyjet knew that she had taken Browne as far as she could at Judimar and wanted to send her to SAB—the New York City Ballet’s affiliated school— for advanced training.  In January 1953, after successfully auditioning for SAB and immediately after graduating from high school, Browne went to New York, with her first year’s tuition paid by a scholarship from the Judimar Mother’s Club.[20]   She was placed in “C,” the second highest level and a stepping stone to a professional career. The teachers were Russian and always placed her in the front of the class. Browne enjoyed SAB but was lonely. Not only was she away from home for the first time, she was also the only black student in "C" level, and one of only six black students in the entire school.  Arthur Mitchell and Louis Johnson were in “D” (the highest level), and Georgia Collins, Barbara Wright, and Michelin Jackson were in “B” (intermediate level).[21]  Because the Mother's Club scholarship only covered tuition, Browne had to work to pay for her living expenses.  It wasn’t easy.  She had a long commute from the Bronx where she was staying with family and sleeping on the couch in the living room.  By fall she was sick and went home to recuperate.  She returned to SAB briefly after Thanksgiving to finish out the calendar year, but decided to remain in Philadelphia.  To support herself she worked at Dorothy Lerner Furniture, an upscale shop on Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia, while taking and also teaching classes at Judimar.

Later in 1954, at the invitation of a former classmate, she started working with the short-lived Philadelphia Ballet Guild. The Ballet Guild was not a professional company—no one, for instance, received a salary—but the first step toward one, and enjoyed the support of  New York dance personalities, including Diana Adams (New York City Ballet), Michael Llande ( Ballet Theatre), and Viola Essen (a former Ballet Theatre dancer), who were guest artists with the company.  The key artistic figure was the English-born choreographer Antony Tudor, a charter member of Ballet Theatre who had choreographed such highly regarded works as Lilac Garden (1936), Dark Elegies (1937), and Pillar of Fire (1942). [22] Tudor was creating a new work for the group, and he invited Browne to take part in it.  She was overjoyed.  Offenbach in the Underworld premieredon May 8, 1954, with Browne appearing in a pas de quatre with three other dancers: the African Americans John Jones and Billy Wilson and a white female dancer.[23]  Within a year, however, Tudor had left the Philadelphia Ballet Guild, and Browne soon followed.  She explored a number of possibilities, but none came to fruition.  Instead, she continued to work at Dorothy Lerner Furniture and take ballet classes.

In 1956, Les Ballets Negres, a small group of black dancers studying with the former Bolshoi dancer Maria Nevelska and directed by Edward (Ward) Flemyng,[24] joined forces with the First Negro Classic Ballet, a Los Angeles-based company of black and Latino dancers headed by former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer Joseph Rickard.[25]  From the merger came a new performing entity, Ballet Americana.  George Chaffee, who had staged Judimar's Swan Lake and owned the studio where the fledgling company was rehearsing, called Browne on Flemyng's behalf, inviting her to join the company. Browne went to New York to begin her professional career as a dancer.[26]

In the 1950s the fight for integration was being waged on many fronts. In modern dance black artists were a growing presence, both as dancers and choreographers. This was not the case in ballet. Only Janet Collins (Metropolitan Opera Ballet), Arthur Mitchell (New York City Ballet), and Raven Wilkinson (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) held permanent positions with American ballet organizations.  As Browne explains, the real problem for black dancers was moving from semi-professional to professional employment:

"Some of us had gotten into the major schools, into the most advanced classes, even company classes, and things seemed to be on the right track. But nobody was getting in the companies. We had come a long way when you think of the times where we couldn't even go into the classes. To go from not only being in class but in so many instances being, if not the most advanced, the most noticed and the most encouraged. The teachers were favoring a number of people, very, very clearly favoring people. So you fell into a certain kind of comfort, thinking well the next step is very naturally that if this person standing in front of me is a ballet master with major companies and he is a choreographer and he is looking at me in this way, why would I not then be taking the next step? So along comes Edward Flemyng, who is building a black ballet company. [People said] "Ah Why? We are on our way!" But he understood that we were not.  All we were doing at that moment, were being allowed to be in the classes.  And that it was an illusion....And he knew all the good dancers he had seen around—having worked with the company in California, having worked in the company in New York—he realized why couldn't we do both.  Why couldn't some people go into the major companies and at the same moment why not have jobs for black dancers at the same time?  Meanwhile it wasn't either/or—there was no other opportunity."[27]

Some black dancers had worked with professional companies on a limited, short-term basis. Ballet Theatre's Negro Unit performed Black Ritual in 1940;[28] in 1946-48 Betty Nichols appeared in several Ballet Society works (in one, Lew Christensen’s Blackface, she danced with Talley Beatty) and subsequently joined Roland Petit’s Ballets de Paris, and Louis Johnson performed in Jerome Robbins’ Ballade in 1952 with the New York City Ballet.[29] However, none of these dancers, including Nichols, who had danced in NYCB’s immediate forerunner, was invited to join either Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet.  Ballet Americana offered black ballet dancers the opportunity to perform ballet rather than modern dance or Broadway dance.

Two white patrons, Theodore Hancock and Lucy Thorndike, funded Ward Flemyng's visionary enterprise. Hancock and Flemyng were jointly billed as the company's Artistic Directors, with Rickard listed as its Ballet Master. The dancers became members of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), and Ballet Americana abided by union standards. The company had day-long rehearsals five or six days a week. According to Browne, Ballet Americana was an ensemble company. Everyone was paid the same, probably to cut costs; soloists and principals would have expected higher salaries. Nonetheless, with choreographers selecting the same dancers to dance principal roles, unofficial ranks certainly existed.  Delores Browne was one of the company's unofficial principal dancers.

The company began to rehearse an eclectic repertory that included several of Rickard's works as well as works by three African American choreographers.  Rickard's works included Rhapsody (also called Theme and Rhapsody) to music by Brahms; Landscape to Gretchaninoff; Italian Symphony to Mendelssohn; and Harlot's House to a score by Rickard’s in-house composer Claudius Wilson. Ernest Parham contributed Mardi Gras to music by Les Baxter and Graham Johnson Raisin' Cane, to another score by Wilson.  Louis Johnson, by then an experienced choreographer with his own company, created both Waltze (or Divertissement) to music by Lecocq and Folk Impressions to music by Morton Gould.  Antony Tudor was scheduled to choreograph a work for six dancers, including Browne, but the project never materialized.  Rickard served as ballet master only briefly. Differences arose between the New York and California groups, and Rickard returned to the West Coast with one of his older dancers, Bernice Hammond. His male dancers, a few female dancers, and his African American resident composer Claudius Wilson all remained in New York.

In 1957 the company was booked for a tour of Great Britain beginning in August.[30] Flemyng and the other administrators decided to change the company's name for the tour to the New York Negro Ballet (NYNB), thus identifying the company as based in New York and comprised of African American ballet dancers. On July 28, 1957 NYNB set sail for Britain on the French Line’s SS Flandre.  For Browne the tour was an amazing experience.  The dancers, who traveled cabin class, were the only African Americans aboard.  Leslie Edwards, a Royal Ballet dancer on his way home, offered to give the company classes on board, an invitation that Flemyng accepted.[31]  Using the rails on deck, the dancers took class early each morning. They had the rest of the day to enjoy shipboard life, although, as Browne later recalled, "we were told we were not on holiday—we were working."[32]  During the five-and-a-half-day trip, dancer Guy Allison taught Browne the Don Quixote pas de deux to perform at the Captain's Night Soirée Gala.  Although none of the dancers were obliged to perform, they decided that it would be good publicity for the upcoming tour.  This was Browne's first encounter with the choreography, and she enjoyed the experience immensely. The audience response was enthusiastic.

NYNB did not perform in London but spent four weeks there rehearsing at the Drury Lane Theatre, which, like most European theaters, had an inclined or “raked” stage, something the young American dancers had yet to experience.  The company had costumes built by a well-regarded costume house and purchased numerous shoes, especially pointe shoes, from Freed and Gamba.  Browne remembers having a large crate of shoes.  She was very impressed with NYNB's treatment of its dancers, who were the highest paid employees on the tour.  At the time it was rare for dancers to receive higher salaries than musicians and stagehands, who had stronger unions than dancers. The company lived in “digs,”  or rooming houses, accommodations that Browne considered satisfactory.

The tour began on September 8 with a week of performances in Glasgow.  The company went on to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Liverpool, Leeds, and Cardiff, spending a week in each city.  (Dance historian Dawn Lille Horwitz, who wrote about the tour, was told that Manchester and Nottingham were also part of the itinerary, but could not find documentation to support this.[33]) The company danced six days a week, with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and traveled with its own orchestra.

Browne danced principal roles or solo variations in five of the seven ballets presented by the company at each performance.  Louis Johnson's Folk Impressions and Ernest Parham's Mardi Gras were contemporary dances rather than ballets, but Browne performed the lead in Mardi Gras on pointe.  The Bluebird pas de deux and Rickard’s Theme and Rhapsody were classical in style, while Johnson's Waltze was neoclassical.  She recalled a section in Waltze that the dancers nicknamed "Jiggly Wiggly" because it was so fast and challenging, particularly the turns down the raked stages.  Reviews from the tour were generally positive, with most critics admitting that "Negro dancers can perform in classical ballet."[34]  Among the naysayers one complained about the "disappointing shortage of that ole black magic....The dusky dancers seemed to be straining against the leisurely tempo."[35]  Moreover, references to jungles, tribal dances, tom-toms, Negroes' innate rhythm, and the like indicated that for many critics black ballet dancers were out of their league.  Some examples:

"Ably as these dancers can comport themselves in traditional classical ballet, it is a pity that they should waste their time on what is not really their element when they have such excellent fare of their own to offer as they give in 'Raisin’ Cane.'"[36]

"If the New York Ballet Company's aim is to show that Negro dancers can perform in classical ballet, then the production at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh, last night proved that the experiment had achieved a large degree of success....They really excel in the modern story ballet…in which the music had so much of the Negro's traditional rhythm."[37]

"The New York Negro Ballet at the King's may not be the perfectionists' idea of ballet, but for sheer spectacular agility this is a show which will give satisfaction to those who prefer their dancing at the double."[38]

In other words, the enthusiasm expressed by the critics was seldom accompanied by a respect for the company as ballet dancers.  Overall, however, the reviews were more positive than negative. Dancer Bernard Johnson reflected that "in 1957 laymen were simply not prepared to see a company of Black ballet dancers, and that audiences felt that Mardi Gras [described in the article as a Negro ballet] was the kind of piece they should be doing."[39]  British audiences and critics brought their biases to NYNB performances, and this affected how they viewed them. More comfortable with so-called “Negro” dances or with ballets on "their own themes," these British critics did not regard classical ballet as belonging to the “Negro.” This territorial approach persists to the present day.

Michel de Lutry, a Royal Ballet dancer who served as NYNB's ballet master in London, staged the Bluebird pas de deux for Browne and Bernard Johnson. For Browne this was one of the highlights of her career.  De Lutry set the version he was famous for performing at the Royal Ballet, with its technically challenging variations and avian imagery. Browne was apprehensive about performing this classical bravura piece and avoided it on the tour's first two stops. But in Edinburgh the Bluebird costume appeared in her dressing room.

"I think I was probably as big a holdout as anybody. Bernard was totally prepared and ready to do what he had to do. I was just terrified. For the first time in my entire life I was afraid to do something. The only fear I had was the comparison. We were doing all contemporary ballets, so there was nothing to compare except your technical abilities. I felt pretty good about that, technically. But here was Bluebird.  Would we be unfairly criticized?…I remember the first performance specifically because I thought, "Oh my God they are going to kill us." We are doing a classical piece that can be identified with so many very famous couples that have made a tremendous mark on this pas de deux as a divertissement—particularly the man who set it on us, Michel de Lutry. He was a very famous Bluebird in Europe.  The whole company was standing in the wings to watch this first performance.  It was a matinee, and I had already been on the stage.  When we did the first couple of steps, just the first couple of steps, the audience started applauding.  We were so taken back, we were just flying on that high. From that point on every highlight that we thought should get applause, did. When we finished and we took that big leap off, we came back and back and back for curtain calls—again and again. We just couldn't get over it…I just kept thinking, oh my goodness, nobody should have to go through this. It wasn't just this is a difficult ballet, but...I am carrying [everything] on my shoulders—if I do it well I am going to be an oddity; if I do it poorly then I am going to carry everybody with me, in that 'they can't.'  It was such a peculiar position."[40]

Elizabeth Thompson, who later danced in the Radio City Music Hall Ballet, recalled that Browne and Bernard Johnson performed the Bluebird pas de deux as proficiently as other dancers and that it was well received by audiences."Sometimes I felt that she [Browne] was a little bit brittle. She was a very forceful dancer, steely in a way.” Thompson clarified the meaning of steely as determined, adding, "I think that's part of her persona."[41] Unfortunately, there appear to be no reviews of Browne in Bluebird. However, as Horwitz notes, she was one of the dancers most often mentioned in reviews of the company, and those mentions were uniformly positive.[42] One critic wrote, "Delores Brown as the Symbol of Gras, a bird, is reminiscent of the Firebird with her daring movements."[43]  Another observed that "the brio of Delores Browne and Bernard Johnson carried them amusingly through a 'Shortnin' Bread' dance"—a pas de deux in Folk Impressions.[44]  Back in New York, Doris Hering wrote in Dance Magazine, "Delores Brown performed her adagio with breathtaking aplomb."[45]  Discussing the same performance in the New York Age, a venerable African American newspaper, Raoul Abdul praised the ballerina's "technical perfection in the spectacular 'Mardi Gras.'"[46] The New York Negro Ballet ended its tour of Great Britain on a high note. Browne remembers signing autographs and giving away old pointe shoes to girls who had come to see NYNB perform several times.

After the tour, the company returned to London to prepare to go to Paris. The dancers began learning Coppélia, with Browne rehearsing the role of Swanilda with Jack Carter, a British dancer who had succeeded Michel de Lutry as ballet master.  NYNB was scheduled to perform at the prestigious Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in early December, the Ballet Festival in Monte Carlo at Christmas, as well as in Marseilles and Lyons.  However, the trip to France was canceled.  According to Browne, the dancers were not told the reasons for this decision.  Lucy Thorndike, the company’s patroness, told the Afro-American that she had concerns about the safety of the dancers given the "recurrent strikes and general instability" crippling France’s general services at that time. "Unless I can be assured that these young people will experience no undue difficulties, I must insist on their discontinuing the tour. They are very young, most of them have never been away from home before, and it is not at all necessary for them to encounter privations. They have proved what they set out to prove, namely, that if talented colored students of ballet are given the opportunity, they very definitely belong."[47] Several of the male dancers opted to stay in Europe, probably because of the more hospitable professional environment for black dancers. They pursued careers in musical theater, nightclubs, and in ballet companies in different countries. Most notably, Sylvester Campbell began a twelve-year career with Dutch National Ballet, achieving principal dancer status. Ronald Fraser remained and had a career in dance as well.[48]

When the depleted company returned to New York, it reverted to its former name, Ballet Americana. Then the company suffered a major financial blow. Mrs. Thorndike died without making any provision for the company in her will, and the company lost its funding.  It struggled along for a while, giving a few performances, including one at the 92nd Street "Y."  Eventually, however, what remained of the group drifted apart, and the company collapsed.

Browne felt that there were several reasons why the New York Negro Ballet folded.  First, there were financial problems.  The blank check that Lucy Thorndike had provided may have been mismanaged. In the United States funding for dance companies is always precarious, and it was especially precarious in the 1950s before the availability of large-scale public resources.  For black dance companies, funding was—and continues to be—an even greater challenge.  Second, Browne believes that Ward Flemyng's desire to dance principal roles created complications that would not have existed if he had focused exclusively on artistic direction.  But, with hindsight, it is clear that he lacked the resources to make his vision a reality.  Fifteen years later the Dance Theatre of Harlem achieved the success that had eluded Flemyng in part because Arthur Mitchell could parlay his national and international stardom into securing financial, artistic, and professional resources for the company. Finally, during the 1950s, white America was not ready for a black ballet company.

After months of auditioning unsuccessfully for other companies, Broadway shows, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Browne stopped looking for a dance job, although for a time she continued to perform with Louis Johnson and Geoffrey Holder in pick-up companies.[49]  She returned to the office work that had supported her previously.  In 1966, after several years away from stage and studio, she received a call from John Jones, a former colleague from Judimar and the Philadelphia Dance Guild.  Although he was now dancing with the Joffrey Ballet, Jones was organizing a concert of his own, and he asked her to perform with him.  Browne said that Jones was taking a chance on her since she had not taken class, stretched, or even exercised for several years. Getting back in shape would be no small feat.  Browne feverishly returned to class to prepare for the concert, more afraid than she had ever been during her career.

The concert was held at the Auditorium of the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in New York City. She and Jones performed three duets, and Jones did an additional solo. One of the pieces, First Sin, she had previously danced with Louis Johnson, although he now reworked it. The other dances were by Claude Thompson, and one was by Jones.  Bernard Johnson, Browne's former Bluebird partner, designed their costumes. Dance critic Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times that the program was "imaginative and extremely well varied,” calling Browne and Jones "two of our most gifted Negro dancers," radiant in "the classic pas de deux First Sin."[50] After this return to the stage, Browne never left it. "I never came out of dance again. No matter what I do I am never stopping again. This is really who I am and what I do, no matter how it turns out."[51]  Were it not for Jones bringing her out of premature "retirement," she doubts that she would ever have returned to dance.

After the concert, Browne resumed her dance career. She joined the Boston-based Talley Beatty Dance Company,[52] appearing in Beatty’s works and, after he left the company, in those of the new director, Billy Wilson.  In 1974, Browne became the first director of the Ailey School’s scholarship program as well as a ballet instructor.  She was also the ballet teacher for the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco), founded by Joan Myers Brown, retiring from that position only in 2014.  Dance, particularly ballet, holds a significant place in Browne's life.

Delores Browne excelled as a dancer.  A scholarship to Judimar, a black dance academy, gave her the means to develop her skills. She was singled out by Vladimir Dokoudovsky at Ballet Arts and admitted to the highly selective School of American Ballet.  Over the years her gifts were recognized by teachers and choreographers such as George Chaffee, Michel de Lutry, Antony Tudor, as well as the dance critic Clive Barnes.  However, despite her gifts, discriminatory practices hampered Browne's full growth as a ballerina. Perceptions that black people are ill-suited to ballet, utilizing arguments based on biological and cultural determinism, marginalized her talents.  Still, the obstacles that Browne encountered do not define her. Not only was she able to carve out a dance career for herself, she also offered her gifts to generations of dancers, black and white, as an instructor and coach.  In 2016 Browne taught a master class at an audition of African American female ballet dancers conducted by the International Association of Blacks in Dance.  Artistic directors from many ballet companies were present as well as dancers she had taught over the years, including Kevin Irving, Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre and Browne’s former student at the Ailey School, who remembered fondly all the lessons he had learned from her.

In 1996, at a symposium about black ballet dancers held in tandem with the exhibition Classic Black, she said, “As long as it [racism in ballet] is very polite and never, ever, ever, discussed and its hands off, it will never change.”[53] This essay pays tribute to Delores Browne’s artistic legacy and challenging journey and adds to the present dialogue so that every little girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer and has the talent to do so also has the opportunity and encouragement to make her dream come true.


Copyright © 2018 by Joselli Audain Deans


Joselli Audain Deans, originally from Brooklyn, joined the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1979  after receiving most of her training at the company’s school.  During her eleven-year career with the company, she danced numerous roles, including “the accused as a child” in Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend, the Bride in Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, and demi-soloist roles in Swan Lake and George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments.  A scholar and an artist, she holds a Doctorate in Dance Education from Temple University.  Her dissertation, “Black Ballerinas Dancing on the Edge,” written under Kariamu Welsh-Asante, focuses on Delores Browne and Raven Wilkinson and analyzes the racial and cultural politics that operated during their careers.  She has taught at Philadanco and several academic institutions, presented her work at the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Society of Dance History Scholars, and served as a consultant for, DTH, and the documentary Black Ballerina.



[1] Delores Browne, interview with the author, October 27, 1999, January 12, 2000, August 25, 2000, and January 10, 2001.  Most of the research for this essay comes from Joselli Audain Deans, “Black Ballerinas Dancing on the Edge: An Analysis of the Cultural Politics in Delores Browne’s and Raven Wilkinson’s Careers, 1954-1985,” Ed. D. Diss., Temple University, 2001.  Additional material is from Melanye White-Dixon’s book Marion D. Cuyjet and Her Judimar School of Dance: Training Ballerinas in Black Philadelphia 1948-1971 (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press), 2011.

[2] Browne added the “e” to her last name when she began dancing professionally and subsequently kept it.

[3] For additional material about Cuyjet, see White-Dixon, Marion D. Cuyjet.

[4] Samuel James Brown, Jr., telephone interview with the author, January 8, 2001.

[5] Dunham Technique was created by Katherine Dunham (1912-2006), dancer, choreographer, teacher, and anthropologist.  From 1945-54 she directed a dance school in New York City that taught not only her own technique, but also ballet, rhythm tap, folk dance, and other arts-related subjects. Dunham technique incorporates African American, Caribbean, African, and South American movement styles into a codified technique.  See Vicky J. Risner, “Katherine Dunham: A Life in Dance,” Library of Congress,

[6] Browne, interview, August 25, 2000.

[7] Marie McLeod, interview with the author, January 2, 2001.

[8] Samuel James Browne, Jr., interview.

[9] Selma Jeanne Cohen, Next Week, Swan Lake (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), 133.

[10] Browne interview, August 25, 2000.

[11] A Negro Congressman, "Orchids to Judimar on Fourth Performance,” The Philadelphia Tribune, June 17, 1952, 6.

[12] Browne interview, August 25, 2000.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] White Dixon, Marion D. Cuyjet, 84.          

[20] Delores Browne, telephone interview with the author, December 3, 2017.

[21] Arthur Mitchell joined the New York City Ballet in 1955 and founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969.  Louis Johnson danced and choreographed both for the Broadway and concert stage.  Georgia Collins became a member of the New York Negro Ballet (of which more later), and Barbara Wright became a Broadway dancer.

[22] From its founding in 1939 until 1957, American Ballet Theatre was simply known as Ballet Theatre.

[23] Max de Schauensee, “Ballet Program Ends Free Series of City Concerts," Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 10 May 1954, 30; Samuel L.  Singer, "New Ballet Makes Bow with Orchestra," The Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 May 1954, 16.  John Jones later danced with the Joffrey Ballet and Billy Wilson with Dutch National Ballet. Wilson had a notable career as a choreographer for the concert stage and for Broadway.

[24] Dawn Lille Horwitz, "The New York Negro Ballet in Britain," in Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance, ed. Thomas F. DeFrantz(Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), 317.  Les Ballets Negres was formed in 1954.

[25] Zita Allen, “Blacks and Ballet.” Dance Magazine, July 1974, 21.

[26] Browne interview, August 25, 2000.

[27] Browne interview, October 27, 1999.

[28] Classic Black, a series of symposia presented at Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, February 12 and 26, 1996.

[29] Lincoln Kirstein, Thirty Years: The New York City Ballet (New York: Knopf, 1978), 357.

[30] For this tour, see Horwitz, "The New York Negro Ballet in Britain," 317.

[31] Elizabeth Ann Thompson, telephone interview by the author, December 15, 2000; K. Webster, “Elizabeth Hubbard, 76, Dancer and Beloved Gardner,” The Villager, March 16, 2013. 

[32] Browne interview, August 25, 2000.

[33] Horwitz, "The New York Negro Ballet in Britain," 322.

[34] E. Mc., "Deep South Tradition Joins the Ballet," Edinburgh Evening News, September 24, 1957, Carol Ann Robinson Archive (hereafter Robinson Archive).  A former NYNB dancer, Dr. Robinson saved clippings of several reviews and graciously provided the author with copies.

[35] H.H., "Beat Out That Jungle Rhythm," Daily Record, September 10, 1957, 9, Robinson Archive.

[36] “Our Ballet Critic,” "Colorful Ballet: Negro Dancers provide Brilliant Spectacle," The Scotsman, September 24, 1957, Robinson Archive.

[37] E. Mc., "Deep South Tradition Joins the Ballet.”

[38] A.H., "Now—Ballet and Variety All in One Show," unidentified clipping, Carol Ann Robinson Archives.

[39] Quoted in Horwitz, "The New York Negro Ballet in Britain," 336.  The emphasis is Horwitz's.

[40] Browne interview, August 25, 2000.

[41] Elizabeth Thompson interview.

[42] Quoted in Horwitz, "The New York Negro Ballet in Britain," 334.

[43] “Our Ballet Critic,” "Colorful Ballet: Negro Dancers Provide Brilliant Spectacle."

[44] J.G., "Negro Ballet's Gift for Miming," unidentified clipping from a Cardiff newspaper, Robinson Archive.

[45] Doris Hering, "Ballet Americana, 92nd Street 'Y', June 22, 1958," Dance Magazine, August 1958, 57.

[46] Raoul Abdul, "Ballet Americana to Make Debut at Kaufmann Sunday," New York Age, June 21, 1958, 20.

[47] “French Unrest May KO Tour of N.Y. Ballet Co.," Afro-American, November 23, 1957, 3.

[48] Browne, telephone interview, December 3, 2017.

[49] Delores Browne, in “I’ll Make Me a World.  The Dream Keepers,“ produced by Blackside Inc. in association with Thirteen/WNET, ca. 1999.

[50] Clive Barnes, "The Dance: Not for Your Stockbroker," The New York Times, September 24, 1966, 12.

[51] Browne interview, August 25, 2000.

[52] “Obituaries—Talley Beatty" Dance Magazine, July 1995, 60.

[53] The author was present when this statement, which inspired her to conduct research on black ballerinas, was made at Classic Black, a two-part symposium, held in conjunction with the exhibition Classic Black, presented by the Dance Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and Dance Research Foundation, at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York City, February 12 and 26, 1996.

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