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The Independent Critic

 Book Review: The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby 
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While I've long been aware of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, like many who will read Karen Valby's "The Swans of Harlem," I was largely clueless to its history and to its role for the Black community and for America's ballet community.

If you were to Google Black ballet dancers, there's a pretty good chance that the first name to pop up would be American Ballet Theatre's Misty Copeland.

In fact, I just did this and such was the case.

However, "The Swans of Harlem" lays the foundation that allowed for a dancer like Copeland's rise including, more specifically, the five Black ballerinas at the center of "The Swans of Harlem" - Lydia Abarca, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton, and Marcia Sells.

Abarca, McKinney-Griffith, and Rohan were founding dancers in the 1969 establishment of Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Mitchell was the first Black principal dancer at the New York City Ballet and a protégé of the choreographer George Balanchine. Determined to provide opportunities in education and professional dance for the community in which he grew up, Mitchell quickly established DTH as a powerful presence in dance. 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.

Yet, for many, they became lost to history and largely unacknowledged when DTH would eventually succumb, thankfully temporarily, to financial issues. As Copeland would begin her rise and the media would embrace her as the first Black dancer in a major ballet company, these five swans would be left to wonder "What about us?"

With vivid character development and detailed storytelling, Valby has crafted an engaging and informative account of five Black ballerinas, fifty years of sisterhood, and a passionate reclamation of a truly groundbreaking history.

By the end of "The Swans of Harlem," you'll likely find yourself rushing to find out more about these five swans and the people who surrounded them from Mitchell, who passed away from heart failure in 2018, to many of the male dancers who comprised DTH and even those who would come and go from this groundbreaking dance organization.

I found myself completely immersed throughout "The Swans of Harlem," though the multiple narratives also occasionally allowed for confusion to creep in. At one point, right about the time DTH's financial issues were at their peak, it was clearly stated that DTH had closed. A couple pages later, there were conversations about DTH events and it was obviously operational. For the uninitiated folks like me, it's a tad confusing though eventually clarity reigns again.

I will confess that at book's end, I had to look up Dance Theatre of Harlem just to clarify if it was still in existence.

While we learn much about DTH throughout "The Swans of Harlem," there's never any doubt that the book is truly about the swans themselves. From the early days of DTH through burgeoning successes to the AIDS crisis that savaged dance organizations everywhere to a current day America that celebrates Misty Copeland and is just learning about DTH's history all anew, "The Swans of Harlem" is an ideal read for Black History month but a vital read for every month of the year.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic