Carmen de Lavallade

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  • Carmen DeLavallade was a remarkable figure of dance and choreography in African-American society. Her talent would become affiliated with names like Alvin Ailey, who, for one season, co-branded his company name with hers in his 1962 European and Asian tour. It was the DeLavallade-Ailey Dance Company Tour.

    DeLavallade found her gift through her cousin, Janet Collins, who was the first black prima ballerina at the famous Metropolitan Opera in New York. At age 14, she decided to begin studying ballet. Soon after, DeLavallade would sign with the Lester Horton Dance Company in 1949. Becoming one of the biggest names in ballet, DeLavallade held a sensual quality in her dancing and would be called “one of most ravishing women in the world” by Duke Ellington. Many of her roles in the ballet were created especially for her.

    In 1954, DeLavallade met the man who would become her husband – actor and dancer, Geoffrey Holder (“Boomerang,” “Annie,” “Live and Let Die”). Soon after, she joined the ranks of her cousin and starred on stage in “Samson and Delilah” and “Aida” at the Met. But, of course, every profession for blacks during that time period was not without discrimination: When DeLavallade and dancer Glen Tetley planned to perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” they were denied as a dance couple because she was black, and he was white. She would dance with Alvin Ailey colleague Claude Thompson instead.

    DeLavallade would share the stage with names like Josephine Baker, Alvin Ailey and Lena Horne. It was Horne who introduced DeLavallade to 20th Century Fox, where she starred in “Carmen Jones,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Lonesome Dove.” And while she taught at Yale Repertory, DeLavallade would teach then-students Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Henry Winkler the art of drama.

    DeLavallade and Holder are currently hosting the “A Memoir in Four Movements” exhibition at the Dusable Museum of African-American History in Chicago.

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