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The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood…Virtual Author Event with Karen Valby

May 23 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Avon Free Public Library, 281 Country Club Rd
Avon, CT 06001 United States

Join us for a virtual, moderated conversation with Karen Valby to celebrate the release of The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and the Reclamation of Their Groundbreaking History.

Karen Valby’s The Swans of Harlem brings to life the stories of Black dancers whose contributions to the world of ballet were silenced, marginalized, and otherwise erased. Karen introduces readers to important figures of our past, while inspiring us to courageously chase our dreams. This is the kind of history I wish learned as a child dreaming of the stage!”— Misty Copeland

The Swans of Harlem is the forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas, the first principals in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who traveled the world as highly celebrated stars in their field and whose legacy was erased from history until now.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Lydia Abarça was a Black prima ballerina with a major international dance company—the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She was the first Black ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine, an Essence cover star, cast in The Wiz and on Broadway with Bob Fosse. She performed in some of ballet’s most iconic works with her closest friends—founding members of the company, the Swans of Harlem, Gayle McKinney, Sheila Rohan, Marcia Sells, and Karlya Shelton—for the Queen of England and Mick Jagger, with Josephine Baker, at the White House, and beyond.

Some forty years later, when Lydia’s granddaughter wanted to show her own ballet class evidence of her grandmother’s success, she found almost none, but for some yellowing photographs and programs in the family basement. Lydia had struggled for years to reckon with the erasure of her success, as all the Swans had. Still united as sisters in the present, they decided it was time to share their story themselves.

Captivating, rich in vivid detail and character, and steeped in the glamor and grit of professional ballet, The Swans of Harlem is a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of their historic careers, and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.

About the Swans, and the author:

Lydia Abarca Mitchell is a founding member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she danced lead roles in Agon, Bugaku, Swan Lake and many more. She has been featured on the covers of Dance and Essence and in print ads for Avon and Revlon. She performed in the movie
The Wiz, and in Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ on Broadway. She has been the rehearsal director at Atlanta’s Ballethnic for over 20 years.

Sheila Rohan is a founding member of Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she was a soloist in Geoffrey Holder’s Dougla, Arthur Mitchell’s Rhythmetron, and more. She was soloist and ballet mistress for the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theatre and toured China and Korea with the Myung Sook Chun Dance Company. She performed the role of Rosa Parks in Gordon Parks’s televised ballet Martin and, as a choreographer, assisted legends such as Louis Johnson, and Walter Rutledge among others.

Marcia Lynn Sells began her life in the arts as a ballerina at Dance Theatre of Harlem and, before that, in the Cincinnati Ballet. In 2021, she became the first Chief Diversity Officer for the Metropolitan Opera. Previously, she held positions in the private and public sectors including
Reuters America, the National Basketball Association, Columbia University School of Law, Harvard Law School, and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

Karlya Shelton-Benjamin began dancing at age 4 with the Colorado Concert Ballet (currently Colorado Ballet). At 17, she became the first person of color to represent the United States in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne ballet competition in Switzerland. She performed around the world with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, is a founding member of Peridance, has taught and coached at Oakland Ballet and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance.

Karen Valby is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She’s the author of the books The Swans of Harlem and Welcome to Utopia. Her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, where she is a frequent contributor, as well as in The New York Times, O Magazine, Glamour, Fast Company, and EW, where she spent fifteen years writing about culture.

Please register; Zoom links will be sent out before the event.

Co-sponsored by the Avon Library & Avon Historical Society.


May 23
7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
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Avon Free Public Library


Avon Free Public Library
281 Country Club Rd
Avon, CT 06001 United States
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