Janet Collins, 1917-2003

  • Janet-Collins-WWP

Woman Category: ArtsWoman Tags: African-American Women, Dancer, and NYC Women

  • HerStory

    The first black Prima Ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in NYC, paving the way for dancers of all races in classical ballet.

    Janet Faye Collins was born in New Orleans and grew up in Los Angeles. She began to study dance at the age of ten. Her first teacher was a neighbor, who agreed to give her lessons in exchange for costumes made by her seamstress mother. She later trained at the Los Angeles Catholic Community Center, and also studied art on a scholarship at Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles Art Center School.
    Her experience was informed by an audition she did at the age of fifteen for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Philharmonic. There she was told that she would have to paint her face white to perform. Collins declined the offer, saying, “I thought talent mattered, not color.”
    In the 1940s she became the principal dancer for two Los Angeles musical productions and worked with a black dance troupe directed by Katherine Dunham. She also appeared in the film “Thrill of Brazil”. In 1949, Collins made her New York debut performing her own choreography, based on her “3-Bs” – blackness, ballet, and the Bible. At the age of 34, Collins was hired by the Metropolitan Opera Ballet as its Prima Ballerina. She was the first black dancer to be working under a full-time contract at a major American ballet company.
    Collins left the Met in 1954 and toured the United States and Canada in solo dance concerts.
    She also taught dance in various schools. In 1974 she retired from performing and teaching and spent her days painting religious subjects in her studio in Seattle. When she died, at 86, the mourners at the service released butterflies.

    “You don’t get there because of, you get there in spite of”

    “You don’t get there because of, you get there in spite of”

    Another Interesting Anecdote:

    • At 22 Collins eloped with a widowed musician, who left her after a year. The collapse of her marriage left her in depression. In the mental institution, she was sterilized without her knowledge.


  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * She started writing her memoir but never finished. In 2011, eight years after her death, “Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins” was published by Yael Tamar Lewin – including Collins’ unfinished autobiography.


    * 1951 Donaldson Award for best dancer on Broadway
    * Dance Magazine named her “the most outstanding debutante of the season"

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Booking.com


  • Janet Collins (dancer) - after the mardi gras (1949)

    Janet Collins performing a dance act after the mardi gras (1949)

  • Collins in 1951. Photo credit - Ed Palumbo @ Library of Congress