Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival Images Courtesy Debra Austin
Debra Austin was only nine years old when her first ballet instructor told her she didn’t have talent. Seven years later, Debra became the first African-American woman invited to join the famed New York City Ballet. She toured the world with the company before moving to Switzerland to join the Zurich Ballet. Debra made history again, when she joined the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982, making her the first African-American female principal dancer in a major American ballet company. It’s a good thing she sought a second opinion about her talent.
Today Debra is a ballet mistress at Carolina Ballet, where she works with Robert “Ricky” Weiss, her former artistic director at the Pennsylvania Ballet.
How did you get into dancing?
I began dancing when I was nine. I went to a local ballet school next door to me. The teacher there was a Rockette from the Radio City Music Hall, and she told my parents [that] I had no talent. My parents said, “Well if she has no talent we’re going to take her somewhere else. She’s 9-years-old for God’s sake.” So they took me to Christine Neubert’s Academy of Dance, a studio in Carnegie Hall. My teacher [there] was Barbara Walczak, who was a soloist in the New York City Ballet, so from the time I was nine, I had really good training.
When I was 11, Barbara Walzack lured Diana Adams - who was the director of the School of American Ballet - to come and see me because she thought she’d done enough for me. Diana Adams came and watched my class, and said I needed to work on my feet which is funny because I don’t really have bad feet, but she said, “We’ll take her on full scholarship when she’s 12.”
When you go to the School of American ballet, you have to go to a professional children’s school, and you have to pay for that too, so I was really lucky because I got a full ride balletically and half a ride education wise. If it wasn’t for the Ford Foundation scholarship, I don’t know whether I’d have been given that opportunity. My parents definitely would not have been able to afford to send me to the School of American Ballet. I was really very fortunate.
So clearly you did have talent.
I did have talent I guess!
The minute I started doing it, it just became something I really wanted to do. I knew when I was 10 years old that this is where I want to be, this is where I want to go, and this is my dream. I’ve been doing this my whole life, and I’m thrilled that I was given that opportunity because I don’t know what else I would have done. I’ve been fortunate enough to still work in dance, and my husband works in dance, so for two people to get jobs in the same place in a community that’s not New York City or Chicago is just a miracle.
What did you like about dancing? How did you feel when you danced?
It was thrilling. Performing is such a gift. The fact that I became a principal dancer – it’s even a bigger gift because you get to be out there by yourself. The applause is for you. Even though when you’re in the core, that’s important too. I was there as well. When that curtain comes down and the curtain goes back up, and you’re bowing, and you’re amongst 16 girls, you still are a part of that production. It’s quite thrilling. It’s exciting.
You were invited to join the New York City Ballet at 16. Tell me about that day.
Mr. Balanchine came into class and watched the class. [After he left I remember] they went and told two girls that Balanchine had taken them into the company, and they came to me and said, “We need your mother to call us.” I was like, “Oh no what does that mean? They didn’t take me? What are they going to tell me?” Arthur Mitchell had just started Dance Theatre of Harlem, and I was really scared they were going to say,” I think you need to go to the Dance Theatre of Harlem.” At that time we didn’t have cell phones, and we used dimes – believe it or not – to make phone calls. So I put my dime in the machine, I call my mother at work, and I say, “Mom you have to call this school immediately. I want to know what’s going on. I’m so scared.” She called the school, and I called her back. She said, “Debbie! Balanchine is taking you into the company.”
I never became a soloist there, but I danced soloist parts. I did dance a lot of principal parts in the New York City Ballet, and George Balanchine choreographed a solo for me. I have my signature solo in a ballet called Ballo Della Regina.
Classical ballet has a history of racial discrimination. How did this show up in your own experience as a professional ballerina?
Arthur Mitchell [was] the first [black] male principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Arthur decided he wanted to retire and start his own ballet company, and George Balanchine helped him. Lincoln Kirstein, who was the founder of the New York City Ballet, helped Arthur as well. So Arthur started the Dance Theater of Harlem, and Arthur wanted me to join, but my eye was set on the New York City Ballet. Balanchine had just taken me into the company. I wasn’t going to leave at 17.
It’s always been a struggle. I don’t really know why there’s that problem. I just think some people believe if you have a darker skin person out there amongst a lot of “white swans” [they] don’t blend in as well...that they don’t fit in.
In 1982 you became the first African American principal dancer for a major dance company when you joined the Pennsylvania Ballet. Were people talking about that back then? Was it a big deal?
No. Ricky, who is director of Carolina Ballet, was my director in Pennsylvania Ballet. There is a really funny story. We did La Sylphide, and the person who was staging it said, “I don’t really see her as a sylph.” And Ricky went, “Why?” and she said, “Well I’ve just never seen a black sylph before.” And he goes, “Have you ever seen a sylph before?”
So there you have it. It’s just what people perceive. The sylph is literally a white butterfly. Was that person saying something because they didn’t believe there would be a black sylph? Or just you know…I don’t see that happening in my vision?’
But Ricky was colorblind, and that was great. I was fortunate.
When did you come to North Carolina?
My husband was dancing for Miami City Ballet, and he was ready to retire. Ricky had just been given this opportunity to start the Carolina Ballet, and he said, “If it all works out in a year…if I raise the money, I would like you and Debbie to come join me.”
How would you describe North Carolina’s ballet community?
It’s amazing. Audiences love it. We get standing ovations. Ricky does a wonderful job and Zalman Raffael, our new resident choreographer, he’s 29 and he really does some beautiful ballets, and the audiences love the work.
How has Carolina Ballet changed?
You had to develop the dancers. We had to put on performances and make them look like they’re supposed to look – seasoned. They stepped up to the plate, and they continue to do it.
I think when you’re giving the community what they want to see, then it works. When the curtain goes up and the curtain goes down, and they’ve enjoyed themselves and want to come back and see it again that’s the most important thing.
What has dance taught you about life?
That you can be who you want to be and you can do what you want to do.
When you think about your career, what are you proudest of?
I think doing some of the full-length ballets [and] being given the opportunity to dance the role of La Sylphide or Giselle which were never danced by black dancers before. I’m most proud of those.
Why do you think public funding for the arts is important?
Without paintings without music without dance…. what kind of society could we be?
The arts bring so much love and so much education. When you take away the arts, you’re taking away so much education for children. It’s funny. Sometimes I teach at local ballet schools, and I’ll see one of my [former] students [all] grown up at the ballet. They become our future audience.