Changing Classical Dance: Racial Diversity and Disparity

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On June 3rd, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will be hosting a panel discussion with the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Hill Dance Academy Theatre for a discussion on racial diversity and disparity in the world of classical dance, what’s changed and what still needs to change. This subject has been highlighted in opinion pieces in Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Seattle Dances and The New York Times.

While many may be familiar with the name and career of Misty Copeland, probably the most prominent Black ballerina working today, there is a rich history of Black, Indigenous and Person of Color dancers in the ballet world that so far has been less publicized. To share that history, I’ve put together a list of materials that can be checked out from the Library that celebrate and center the lives, voices, work and influence of these dancers.

Biographies for all ages abound, along with picture books written by dancers to inspire young readers. Titles for adults also include histories of dance, a number of archival performances on DVD of ballerinas such as Maria Tallchief, Carmen de Lavallade, Nora Kimball and more, and documentaries about breaking into the modern world of ballet.

To discover even more of these artistic athletes, check out this list of 25 African American ballerinas, explore the website of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet and read this PBS blog on ballerinas who broke color barriers. There is also a documentary about Ella Havelka, the first Indigenous dancer in the Australian Ballet, streaming on Hoopla which you can watch for free with your library card.

Register online for June 3’s Black Skin, White Tights: Discussion on Racial Diversity in Classical Dance.

If you’re a fan of reading about dance in fiction, check out this Staff Picks featuring Teen books about dance and dancing.

You can sign up for a free library card here. If you are new to our eResources, check out these tutorial videos on how to get started.

Looking for a good book, album, movie or TV show? We’re happy to recommend them to you! Use this Personalized Recommendations form to send us some information about what you like and we’ll curate a list just for you.

If you have any additional questions, you can contact a librarian through FacebookInstagram or Twitter. You can also call us at 412.622.3114 or email us at

Ballerina Dreams: A True Story

True story of five little girls with cerebral palsy or other physical disabilities who were determined to become ballerinas. 

Beautiful Ballerina

In this celebration of ballet’s splendor, lush photographs and poetic narrative put readers center stage with young ballerinas from the Dance Theatre of Harlem. 



A young Misty Copeland discovers her love for dance through the ballet of Coppélia. 

Dancing in the Wings

Sassy tries out for a summer dance festival in Washington, D.C., despite the other girls’ taunts that she is much too tall. 

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird

American Ballet Theater soloist Misty Copeland encourages a young ballet student, with brown skin like her own, by telling her that she, too, had to learn basic steps and how to be graceful when she was starting out, and that some day, with practice and dedication, the little girl will become a firebird as well. Includes author’s note about dancers who led her to find her voice. You can also check out this title as eBook on OverDrive/Libby.

Meet the Dancers: From Ballet, Broadway, and Beyond

Dancers from all kinds of backgrounds talk about their different paths to success as ballerinas, modern dancers, music video performers, and Broadway showstoppers, including Black ballerinas Aesha Ash and Lauren Anderson. 

Ready to Fly: How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina

Sylvia Townsend, an African American girl, falls in love with ballet after seeing Swan Lake on TV. Although there aren’t many ballet schools that will accept a girl like Sylvia in the 1950s, her local bookmobile provides another possibility when a librarian helps Sylvia find a book about ballet. With the help of her new books, the determined seven-year-old starts teaching herself the basics of classical ballet. 

Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina

Ballerina Maria Tallchief describes her childhood on an Osage reservation, the development of her love of dance, and her rise to success in that field. 

A Ballerina’s Tale

Looks at the life and accomplishments of Misty Copeland, who in 2015 became the first African American woman to be named principal dancer in a premier ballet company. 


Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas

Six ballerinas–Mary Ellen Moylan, Maria Tallchief, Melissa Hayden, Allegra Kent, Merrill Ashley, and Darci Kistler–keep alive Balanchine’s ballets and the inspiration they learned from him. These dancers, along with Suzanne Farrell, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Diana Adams, are seen in excerpts from Balanchine ballets. 

Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir

In 1960s San Francisco Osumare decided to concentrate on dance, which brought her to Europe and “jazz ballet” and then creating her own dance companies in Europe, integrating Lincoln Center, doing fieldwork in Ghana, and more. 

Dancing Spirit: An Autobiography

An autobiography of a Black dancer who started studying dance at six and went on to work with Alvin Ailey, on Broadway, and then with her own company. 

First Position

Profiles six contestants in the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition for aspiring young ballet dancers, including Michaela DePrince.  

Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora

Katherine Dunham was a deep influence on dance history, especially in choreography, where her study of African Dance became incorporated in performance and her use of dance in activism. 

Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina

Tallchief tells her story from her childhood in Oklahoma on an Osage Reservation to the stage with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and as muse to George Balanchine. She recounts how her world was in part brutal hard work and exhaustion but also proud exhilaration. 

The Women Who Raised Me: A Memoir

Raised by a Black Bostonian foster mother on a farm in Maine and mentored by a Paris-trained prima ballerina, Victoria Rowell battled loneliness and anxiety to become a ballerina and actor. You can also check out this title as eBook on Hoopla.