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Carmen de Lavallade tells the story of her cousin and “star in the sky,” Janet Collins


American actress, dancer and choreographer Carmen de Lavallade tells the story of her cousin, ballet dancer Janet Collins. “There are times in your life when you want to give up, but she never did,” de Lavallade says. She also shares stories about other inspiring women in her life like Josephine Baker and Lena Horne.

[Editor’s Note: The following post is part of American Masters’ #InspiringWomanPBS campaign, which highlights the powerful, creative, and innovative women in our lives. Visit the Inspiring Woman page to join the campaign and submit the story of a woman who inspires you.]


When I think of an inspiring woman, I think of my cousin Janet Collins - my star in the sky - someone who I followed and who was a great example of someone who never gave up. And that, to me, means everything because there are times in your life when you want to give up, but she never did. She wanted to be a ballet dancer - not a contemporary dancer, a ballet dancer. Well, that was absolutely forbidden in those days, because there was this feeling that people of color didn't have the feet or the body for ballet dancing. But she kept her classes up and she auditioned for Massine for Ballets Russes and Massine liked her very much, but he said if she joins the company she would have to make her skin - like she'd have to paint her skin white or something like that - and he said, 'You wouldn't want to do that, would you?' And she said no, and it hurt her very, very much, but my aunt Adele who was - she was the champion for Janet at that time - she said, 'You go back to your classes and you keep going.' And she became the star that she wanted to become, the prima ballerina - a ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera. Then there is Lena Horne. Now I met Lena Horne at Lester Horton Dance Theater when I made my debut in the company in 1950, and she was my mentor in a way. She was just Lena Horne - there was no big star about her. That's the beauty of most of the women that I - Janet was that way, she was just Janet and not, 'I am Janet Collins' or 'I am Lena Horne.' Those are the great women when they have that attitude, and it's beautiful.

It's beautiful, and being sponsored by her is just a great honor. I couldn't think of anything more beautiful at that time, and I think I was you know about 17 years old and that was stars in my eyes, and Hollywood was a tough place at that time, and Janet couldn't perform with a ballet company and Lena couldn't be a movie star. It was about Christmastime and she invited myself and some of the company members or Lester's company to her home, and Lester being who he is, he made this beautiful cornucopia of wire and put fruit in it, just as a gift to her, and I remember we arrived there and she was just there with her children and her husband Lenny and she had this suitcase full of books and she was on her way to Vegas and we said well why are you taking all the books?

She says yes, because she couldn't use the pool, she couldn't be a part she just stayed in a room and read. Here this beautiful incredible woman could sing there but she couldn't use the pool. It's the times when we grew up, that's what we faced. But Lena, just her name helped us, you know, and she was so generous with her time, and she had very little time, but to invite us around Christmastime to her home and meet her family and speak to us about Las Vegas and whatnot, which I experienced later in my life, and I remembered that. I remembered her experience.

Josephine Baker was the most extraordinary woman - also another very generous person - now Josephine I met with my husband Geoffrey Holder.

You know Geoffrey worked with Josephine; he was sharing an evening with her and then somewhere along the line she took the show to Paris and and Geoffrey said, 'Can I take Carmen?' And she said, 'It's perfectly fine' you know, and Geoffrey and I shared the evening at the Olympia in Paris with Josephine Baker.

And a story that I love, Geoffery went to her room and said - this is the kind of person she is - 'Miss Baker, now I'd like to know, is it alright for Carmen to to wear this dress? You know, it's this color - it's white and and I wanted to know if it's all right.' She said, 'Why did you ask me that?' He said, 'Because I didn't want her to wear the same color.' And she said, 'I can always change my costume.' I would never hear of anybody say that before. On stage when we would take bows, she would push me forward, she says, 'You don't bow enough.

'You don't bow long enough.' And she was, you know, a mentor in that way.

I was a younger woman, and here's the big star - she had no - it didn't bother her at all - that's a star. It didn't bother her that a younger woman was there. You know, some people might say, 'No, I don't want that on the stage with me.' Not her. All the women I met, you know, Janet, Nina, and Josephine, had that quality - they have a presence and they command it, and I think that's because they know who they are. I mean, that might sound a little strange but I think they know who they are, but but it was very inspiring. I've been so blessed to be around these women and I think that they've helped me a lot in in my work, I must say.


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