Lauren Anderson was nine years old when her mother first took her to see Dance Theatre of Harlem perform. She didn’t know going in what the company was all about.
And so the first black dancer running across the stage in a tutu made her gasp.
“My mother said I took this breath in and I moved to the edge of my seat,” she says. “Then I saw another one run across and literally—this is so inappropriate but this is how a child thinks—I looked to my mom and said, ‘Mom, there’s a whole stage full of them!’ Because I just for the first time realized I hadn’t seen a black ballerina.”
Anderson had taken her first ballet class a couple years earlier. She’d noticed she looked different—“my hair, my skin color”—from most of the little girls at the Houston Ballet Academy. For a while, she was the only black student, and just a few others came and went in those early years.
But as a child, she didn’t connect her own little ballet world to the larger one all over the country, which for most of its history has consisted of a vast sea of pale faces.
There were some rare exceptions. Raven Wilkinson, for example, helped forge the path in the 1950s as a dancer for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She sometimes had to stay alone in “colored” motels in the segregated South or skip tour stops entirely. Once, a member of the Ku Klux Klan even boarded their bus in anger. She eventually left the company and later moved to the Netherlands to dance for the Dutch National Ballet.
Anderson would go on to become the first African American principal dancer at Houston Ballet in 1990, 25 years before Misty Copeland became a household name as the first black woman promoted to principal at American Ballet Theatre. There were some black men who made it into the ranks of major American companies, including Arthur Mitchell, who rose up through New York City Ballet before he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969.
But black ballerinas were scarce when Anderson was growing up in the 1970s. Mitchell’s company full of them made a lasting impression on a nine-year-old, who ran home to see if the company’s star, Virginia Johnson, was in her Dance Magazine, and looked to her as a model.
Anderson, whose first love was the violin, got serious about ballet a few years after that performance. She figured she’d train in Houston and then move to New York City to join DTH with the other black ballerinas. “I didn’t notice I wasn’t seeing them in other places,” she says. “I didn’t expect them.”
When her father turned to Ben Stevenson, who at the time ran Houston Ballet and its school, to ask how realistic a career in ballet was for his teenage daughter, the answer was devastating. Anderson didn’t have the body for ballet, the director said, though she was quite talented and could have a future in musical theater. Her parents said they’d pay for lessons through the end of the year, and then they could reevaluate.
So, she decided to double down and do whatever she could to transform the lines of her body. She became a pescatarian, took Pilates, and worked as hard as she could in class. When casting went up for that year’s spring show, Alice in Wonderland, she saw only one “Anderson” on the list, next to the lead. She figured it must be some other girl, because “what do we know about Alice? Alice is white.”
Confronting Stevenson, she inquired why she was the only student who couldn’t be in the show. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” she recalls, because he had, in fact, cast her as Alice. When she explained that Alice is white, he responded that “the only color in art is on a canvas.” She’d proven him wrong about her potential that year, and in return he lit a fire under her.
Years later, after she’d joined Houston Ballet and realized her wildest dreams of becoming a soloist, the same man walked casually into the studio one day and told her he was promoting her to principal the following season. She remained at the helm for 16 years, dancing lead roles in The Nutcracker, Cleopatra, Don Quixote, and countless other ballets before retiring in 2006.
Looking back, she says Stevenson and the administration not only nurtured her but also sheltered her from much of the racism directed at her—like when someone from the outside would come to work with the company and “didn’t understand how you could have a black chick…messing up a line of white swans.” Or the hate mail and death threats she only learned about years later.
But she wasn’t shielded from all of it. Soon after she was promoted to principal, she was cast as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Right before her first full run-through in front of the entire company, someone in the dressing room said to her: “The only reason you’re doing this is because you’re black.” She cried in the bathroom and then pulled herself together to get through the rehearsal. It wasn’t the last time she heard such comments.
“My blackness never bothered me, it bothered other people,” she says. “But I learned that before them there was dance and when they’re gone there’s still dance. Dance was my thing. I learned how to push through and rise above.”
Her focus throughout her career was on being the best dancer she could be, and she hopes she’s remembered as a great one, regardless of the milestone. “I didn’t do it to become the first, I just was the first,” she says. “I’d rather my claim to fame be, ‘She helped to change some of the lives of children,’ not, ‘She was just the first black chick to become a principal dancer at the Houston Ballet.’”
After more than two decades as a dancer in the company, she walked across the hall into education and community engagement, an area she says she was just as passionate about. Today, she’s the program manager in that department, which has grown from two staffers to more than 20. They target underserved communities and see more than 60,000 students through 19 programs every year.
“What I do now is all about diversity in ballet,” she says. And she’s come to realize that being the first has put her in a unique position to make bigger and broader change. It really hit her when a pair of her pointe shoes went on display at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture—among so many other firsts.
“Firsts are really important,” she realized. “We wouldn’t evolve without firsts. Things don’t change without firsts.”
She and Wilkinson were both there for Misty Copeland’s 2015 debut in Swan Lake’s iconic leading role—the first time a black woman became the Swan Queen with American Ballet Theatre. Anderson presented Copeland with flowers onstage after the historic performance, lifting the tutu-ed swan up off the floor in a profound hug between firsts.
For Anderson, “what’s cool is to see the process, from the first to the next to the next.”
What Motivated Her to Become the First
There’s that bit of competitive thing that I have. But I just love dancing and becoming music. And to be able to do something I love to do and get paid for it, that was what was so attractive to me. Because it made me happy. Like I loved dancing, and dancing had chosen me. To be able to have it as my job was a serious motivation, besides the fact that my dad did put an ultimatum down that if you don’t get a job in a year, you’re going to college and that’s that. It was almost like I was desperate: If I don’t do this now I won’t be able to do it.
The Biggest Challenge She Faced
I’d have to say breaking the stereotype. The hardest thing was breaking the stereotype of what the typical ballerina looked like.
Advice She’d Give Another First
I always say: What makes you different is that you are authentically yourself. You can learn to do something, you can work really hard at it—and if everybody works really hard at it they’ll be really good, right? But what makes you different is that you’re you. So if you can just be your authentic self and work hard and do everything else, what’s going to make you stand out is that you’re different because you’re really being you. And there’s only one you.
Photo of Lauren Anderson courtesy of Lauren Anderson.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author