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Long before African-American ballerina Misty Copeland danced her way into American Ballet Theater, Raven Wilkinson was already a living legend as the first African-American woman to be signed by a major ballet company.

Although she faced extreme racism and almost left her field, her resilience in the face of adversity is admirable. She was born Anne Raven Wilkinson in Harlem on February 2, 1935, to parents Dr. Frost Wilkinson, a dentist, and her mother, Anne. Along with her younger brother, the family lived a middle-class lifestyle in the famous New York neighborhood.

At age five, Wilkinson became enamored with ballet after seeing a Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo presentation. Her uncle enrolled her into the Swoboda School when she turned nine as a birthday gift, and she learned under Vecheslav and Maria Swoboda, both Moscow-trained dancers.

Later, the school became the official school for Ballets Russes. During her last two years of school, Wilkinson transferred to the Children’s Professional School in the Bronx, hoping to follow in the footsteps of the pioneering Black dancer, Janet Collins. Wilkinson auditioned for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and was denied twice.

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