As Black History Month is coming to a close, I have been thinking about an appropriate post and settled on two. Today’s post pays tribute to the inimitable Carmen de Lavallade. I am not sure how many schoolchildren study the creative accomplishments and boundary-breaking life of De Lavallade, but I am sure that it is not nearly enough.
De Lavallade, almost 86 and still looking like the most classically beautiful dancer you ever saw, not only has had a brilliant career of her own in dance and theater (in dance companies, on Broadway, on television, and in film), but also has been surrounded for decades by icons of the dance and theater world—from her high school friend Alvin Ailey to her multi-talented husband Geoffrey Holder. Let me say a word about De Lavallade’s background, just in case you don’t know as much about it as you should.
De Lavallade met a young Alvin Ailey when they were classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles (she graduated in 1948). She took her friend Alvin to a dance class she had been attending with the great modern dance creator/teacher Lester Horton, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As you might know, De Lavallade started taking dancing lessons at a time in our history when black students were not welcome everywhere. According to a Los Angeles Times interview last October, De Lavallade said, “You couldn’t even get into a dance studio without some student walking out. I was lucky to find teachers like Melissa Blake, Carmelita Maracci, and, of course, Lester Horton. . . . Lester opened up that place to everybody—every kind of person in the world was there!”
De Lavallade and Ailey went on to dance with Horton’s multicultural company and learned firsthand everything there was to know about running dance companies. When Horton died in 1953, Ailey became one of the main proponents of the Horton technique (which is still used today by his world-famous Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Ailey School and which is the basis of many of Ailey’s best-loved and timeless works). Ailey and De Lavallade came to New York City, danced together and separately in various companies and Broadway performances, and became the monumental stars they were both born to be.
De Lavallade met Holder in her Broadway debut, House of Flowers, in 1954. Holder’s career later took him from dancing to painting to costume design to directing. He won Tony awards for best direction and best costume design in 1975 for The Wiz, the well-known African-American musical version of The Wizard of Oz. Holder and De Lavallade were an iconic couple until his death in 2014.
Last November, De Lavallade returned to her alma mater, Thomas Jefferson High School, to talk to the students. Los Angeles Times reporter Jessica Gelt describes the scene in the auditorium:
Tall, slender and elegant with her hair pulled back in a tight bun and a bright red scarf around her swan-like neck, De Lavallade, now 85, choked up when she first began to speak at a morning assembly.
“I can’t tell you what this means to me,” she told students. “I was you. Alvin was you. You are a part of that history, and you will be a part of that history, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
. . . She shared with the students an anecdote about how she wasn’t allowed to dance with her partner on “something called The Ed Sullivan Show” because the partner was white.
As she talked about making her life’s path as an artist of color, about how the students were part of her history, about how students could make their own history, [s]he asked, “Do you understand?”
. . . “We came through times when everybody told us we couldn’t do it, and we believed it,” she said. “Don’t you believe it.”
My guess is that De Lavallade was a lot for the students to take in. My guess is that they probably had never seen anyone like her. Who really has? The high school, which was about 80 percent black when De Lavallade and Ailey attended it, now serves mostly Latino students. What must they have thought about “this person who came from outer space,” as De Lavallade described herself later to the reporter?
According to the Times article, De Lavallade spoke insistently to the students, “People are people all over the world. Don’t let anybody tell you who you can be. Do you understand?” It was a simple, but powerful message, delivered by someone who never let anyone tell her who she could be.
And here is one last reason I wrote this post for Black History month. At the close of the assembly, De Lavallade told the students something that Holder had said. It is as memorable as any quotation you would ever want to hear during Black History Month. Here it is:
“I walk through doors. If I’m not wanted in a place, there’s something wrong with the place, not me.”
Thank you, Ms. De Lavallade, for bringing those words to students who need to hear them. Let’s hope that your life story and Mr. Holder’s words and Mr. Ailey’s works travel in some way to every school every February.
Parents: Make it happen.