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Manilla to publish the story of how five Black ballet dancers changed the world of classical dance for ever

Manilla Press, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, will publish The Swans of Harlem: Fifty Years of Sisterhood, Five Black Ballerinas, One Incredible Story by Karen Valby. UK & Commonwealth rights (exc Can, USA & Phil) were acquired from Felicity Rubinstein at Lutyens & Rubinstein in association with Barbara Jones at SKA. 

Harlem, 1969. It’s a time of civil activism in America when Arthur Mitchell founds the Dance Theatre of Harlem. A protégé of the renowned choreographer George Balanchine, Mitchell has experienced first-hand the inequities of being a Black dancer in the world of ballet. His mission is to bring classical dance to the neighbourhood that raised him and to present ballerinas from that neighbourhood to the world – to prove that a person’s skin colour should be no barrier to their relationship to art. 

Over fifty years later, the Swans of Harlem reunited to tell their story, and to preserve their legacy as pioneers of dance, changing the way ballet is perceived forever. 

Valby recounts this incredible tale – a tale of resilience, bravery and a remarkable friendship that has lasted fifty years. From its beginnings in a church basement where these dancers come, all with the passion, talent and discipline that ballet requires, the swans unite: Lydia Arbaca, a Black prima ballerina who becomes a cover model – such was her grace and beauty that Lord Snowden was besotted with her; Sheila Rohan, a mother and activist; gifted Gayle McKinney-Griffith; Marcia Sells and Karlya Shelton, who are inspired to dance professionally after watching the Dance Theatre of Harlem on stage. These women will dance for the Queen, party with Mick Jagger, and perform with Josephine Baker. They will live through the hedonistic, glamorous seventies, and the eighties, when many of the young men they dance with fall victim to the AIDS epidemic.  Now these women desire to resurrect their lost history not only for their own sake but for the sake of other dancers of colour.

Through friendship, experience and meticulous interview, the story of a sisterhood is brought back to life by Karen Valby, a journalist for Vanity Fair and the New York Times, and these five Black ballet dancers, dear friends who first met each other under the auspices of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, tell their story, one of dedication to their craft, of the prejudices they met and overcame, and of how, in doing so, they changed the world of classical dance for ever.

Author Karen Valby said: “This is a book as much about the glamour of the stage as it is about the right to one’s own story. The Swans stood up for themselves fifty years ago when they claimed their right to ballet; now these five fearless women have risen up again by refusing to let their precious histories be forgotten. Together, they are unstoppable force.”

Lydia Abarca-Mitchell, one of the five Swans of Harlem, said: “It has been decades since our first performance in London at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, whose audience made us feel most welcome and appreciated. We are so proud that the team at Manilla Press will be bringing us back in spirit by publishing our story.”

Managing editor of Manilla Press Justine Taylor said: “The Swans of Harlem mesmerised me from the very first page – it’s a brilliant evocation of a particular time in American history, as well as a testament to these five outstanding dancers who broke new ground in the world of classical dance. I’m so thrilled to be publishing this important book, and I can’t wait to bring their story to the wide audience they deserve.”

The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas. One Incredible Story by Karen Valby will be published by Manilla Press on 30th April 2024 in HB, TPB, ebook and audiobook as a lead publication.