KUZYK Profile | Janet Collins

June 24, 2022 | Elizabeth Kuzyk

Janet Collins

7 March 1917 - 28 May 2003

American ballet dancer and choreographer.

Janet Collins was a pioneer. She was one of the few classically-trained African American ballerinas of her generation and in 1952, she became the first black prima ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Not only was this a major historical feat but she accomplished this at a time when racial segregation was rampant.

Even at the age of 15, the young dancer, after auditioning for a role at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, had enough self-respect to decline the offer when she was told she would need to paint her face white for the performance. Leaving the audition in tears, Collins vowed to perfect her art so that the color of her skin would never again be an issue.

Her perseverance, her will to succeed, kept her going. Collins continued to dance despite the adversity she faced—within the movements of her body she found a language of freedom. To believe in yourself when no one else does takes an insurmountable amount of courage. Throughout the course of her life, Collins consistently held onto that courage and in so doing broke barriers.

As I work to finish my latest collection, I look to Janet Collins for inspiration. She stands as a constant reminder to defy expectations and keep going no matter what. In the words of the late African American ballerina, “you don't get there because, you get there in spite of.”