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The Swans of Harlem

A Story of Sisterhood from an Unlikely Source


We all love Misty Copeland. While she was the first African American Female Principal dancer in American Ballet Theater, the first principal dancer of an American Ballet Company was Lydia Abarca (Mitchell) of Dance Theater of Harlem. I know, right? I didn’t know either!

I learned of this hidden gem when the author's publicist contacted me. The book is titled The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby. The book tells the story of the five trailblazing dancers who helped to put the first permanent professional black ballet company on the map. The book tells the story of the discrimination they faced, but the more beautiful underlying tale is the sisterhood that the Swans developed and maintained over the years. According to Valby, it was when Abarca-Mitchell’s daughter wanted to prove to a friend that her mother was the first black prima ballerina. Google did not have that information, and the Swans decided it was time to tell their story. The Swans are Abarca-Mitchell, Gayle McKinney-Griffith, Sheila Rohan, Karlya Shelton, and Maria Sells.

I was excited to learn of this book but withheld my excitement when I discovered that the author was of the less melanated persuasion. I was a little insulted. How would she tell this story? What kind of spin would she put on it? I guess I will find out because I have an interview with her. Here is how it went down.

SOZ: The first thing I want to ask you is how you heard about this story.

Valby: One of the agents lives on the same Harlem block as one of the Swans, Marcia Sells. Our families have been long-time friends. She met my young daughters, who are black and who grew up in an Austin (TX) dance studio called Ballet Afrique. I would always post photos of my girls in their recitals. She just knew how much a black dance studio meant to my family. She introduced us. I had an initial Zoom call with the women just for them to get a sense of who I am and to see if they felt comfortable with me. We hit it off immediately; they thought they could trust me. I was grateful for that, but I also wanted to have more conversations to ensure they didn’t feel like I was intruding on their story.

SOZ: That is amazing. I have to ask you this question, or I wouldn’t be me. How did you end up adopting? I'm assuming it's adoption, two black daughters. How did that come about?

VALBY: Circuitously, like life does. We had an infertility diagnosis. My stepmother is black, so I felt very humbled by the idea that I dared to think I was up for this, that my husband and I were up for this. We just jumped in. My older daughter is everything. We didn't want her to be outnumbered in our immediate family, so we adopted another daughter. I want my daughters to have each other in ways my husband and I cannot be there for them or model for them. I think I was always aware of how dangerous transracial adoption can be for a black child’s soul and how foolhardy and arrogant it could be for a white person to think they could give a black child what they need. When I was in love with my children, and they were in my house, I realized the responsibility was so enormous, and this job was so precious. It is so easy to get wrong. I want to provide scaffolding for them to be healthy, proud black women. How will I build a life for them so they have the tools to develop that skill set for themselves? Having the Swans of Harlem come into my life was such a gift. It feels like I have five new family members from whom my daughters can take inspiration.

Misty Copeland, Lydia Abarca, The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby


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