Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.
First up is Janet Collins.
Who is Janet Collins?
Janet Collins (1917-2003) was the first Black prima ballerina to dance at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Growing up amid adversity
Collins was born in New Orleans in 1917 and moved to Los Angeles with her family for the majority of her childhood. She divided her time between ballet and painting and attended the Los Angeles Art Center School and Los Angeles City College. Collins initially took ballet lessons at the local Catholic community center and then trained under Carmelita Maracci, allegedly one of the few teachers accepting Black students at the time. When she was just 15, Collins auditioned for and was accepted to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. However, she turned down the opportunity after being told she would have to wear lighter makeup to try and pass as white.
Making career moves
Collins eventually made the move to New York City, having saved money from selling her artwork. She performed with Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton’s dance troupes, in films including Stormy Weather and Jack Cole’s The Thrill of Brazil, and on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Out of This World. She also began to choreograph and perform her own work throughout the city. And people were taking notice—Collins won the Donaldson Award (for best dancer on Broadway) and Dance Magazine dubbed her “the most outstanding debutante of the season.”
In 1951, Collins was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. She was not only the first Black dancer to join the company, but also the first Black artist to perform on the Met stage. Collins danced with the Met until 1954, performing leading roles in ballets such as Aida and Carmen and garnering notable reviews from critics and audiences alike. Collins’ former partner, Loren Hightower, told Dance Magazine, “You could show Janet a movement, and immediately it became something that nobody else could do. But she did not alter it. It was as if Janet looked inward, and a strange power that she had seemed to come from there…it was magic, hypnotic. It was totally intuitive, and when anything is that unadornedly genuine, it’s absolutely compelling.”
Discrimination on the road
Despite her prima status, Collins experienced racism when the Met Ballet Company toured throughout the United States. In several cities, Collins’ understudy had to perform her leading roles, and she was not welcome in many hotels and restaurants. In response, the company threatened not to return to venues that practiced such segregation. Just as in her teen years, Collins rose above, committing herself to her own artistic excellence and allowing her performance onstage to speak for itself.
Beyond the stage
After her career with the Met, Collins went on to establish her own dance troupe and choreographed for companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the San Francisco Opera. She taught at the School of American Ballet, Marymount Manhattan College, San Francisco Ballet, the Harkness House, and St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, always empowering her students to grow as artists and teaching them to accept nothing short of excellence. Collins passed away in 2003, but her legacy—both on stage and off—paved the way for future generations of Black dancers and continues to inspire and inform choreographers, educators, and audiences today.
Salmon’s passion for ballet radiates from her every pore and shines onto each
student she encounters here at BDC. With her virtuosic demonstration, careful
hands-on correction, visual imagery, and historical and experiential anecdotes,
Salmon has had many of her students grace the ballet, concert, and Broadway
stages. And before their shows or in between contracts, these dancers come back
to her ballet class because they know with “Miss Jamie,” there’s always more to
learn and improve. Even dancers who for one reason or another begrudgingly make
their way to the barre often discover a new appreciation for ballet—both as an
art and as a practice—thanks to Salmon’s thoughtful, inspirational, and
up, Salmon trained at the North Carolina School of the Arts, SAB, Joffrey
Ballet School, and Broadway Dance Center. Her first professional gig was
performing with her ballet bud, Nicole Fosse, in a production of “The
Nutcracker,” directed by Gwen Verdon and produced by Bob Fosse, who were like
second parents to Salmon during her SAB summers in the Big Apple. She went on
to dance with the Joffrey Concert Group and for TV, film, and commercials.
Salmon credits her teaching philosophy to the mentors and experiences that
helped to shape, challenge, and support her as a dancer. “Both my training and
performance experience have influenced me tremendously as a teacher.” Salmon
considers herself a “tough love teacher with positive reinforcement.” This, she
explains, is a balanced foundation to truly empower her students with the
encouragement and discipline to achieve their goals. “Every student and
circumstance is unique,” she adds. “What works for one dancer might not work on
another. You, as a teacher, have to determine the best way to reach that
individual dancer—when to give a little extra pressure and when to back off in
To Salmon, it’s an exciting challenge to teach open adult classes at BDC where students come from all over the world and have diverse dance backgrounds and varying levels of technical ballet training. “While I do love teaching at a conservatory, it’s just as rewarding to inspire a contemporary or street style dancer to find a love for ballet.” This gift to inspire was passed down from Salmon’s most memorable teachers and mentors (*see acknowledgments). “I had teachers that were so energetic, hands-on, and visual with imagery. That was very helpful to me,” she remembers. “As a teacher, I feel like I’m the new messenger—passing on the ballet history and folklore that came before me. And then, by sprinkling in my own personal stories, it becomes something new and personal. It’s very special.”
Salmon first began teaching at BDC back in 2008 and she still gets goosebumps walking through the halls. “It means a lot to teach at Broadway Dance Center,” she acknowledges. “I trained here with Finis Jhung, Evie Lynn, and Douglas Wassel. It’s humbling to be on the faculty amongst my ballet colleagues, all the incredible educators in their own genres, and then also part of the great legacy of teachers who have called BDC home.”
Salmon, ballet will always always be the crux of any dancer’s training–at
Broadway Dance Center, a liberal arts university, a pre-professional
conservatory, or anywhere. “There’s a lot of talk about cross-training today,”
Salmon says. “I hear about Broadway performers who skip dance class and head to
the gym. Fitness classes might build your stamina, but they won’t help you
perfect your pirouettes or heighten your extension. You need to get back to the
And ballet, emphasizes Salmon, is an integral foundation for every style of dance. “An arabesque is an arabesque no matter if its jazz, contemporary, or any other style of dance. You need to know the architecture of that position from ballet,” Salmon explains. “There’s something from ballet—whether it’s proper alignment, posture, quick and detailed footwork, or graceful port de bras–that can be taken and used to inspire in any form of dance.” She continues, “What’s more, there’s an aura about ballet dancers. I can tell the type of ballet training a dancer has had just by how they prepare at the barre before the music starts. You can tell by a dancer’s demeanor and the way they carry themselves. That poise and professionalism will translate anywhere.”
do many dancers feel like they have to drag themselves to the barre? “If you
only take ballet once a week, you won’t like it,” Salmon says frankly. “It’s
difficult to do only once per week because the body doesn’t respond quickly to
the very formal movement and rigid placement of ballet technique. It needs
repetition…to be reminded over and over again. People think ballet is rigid. It
isn’t—it has a very specific
placement. You can find freedom and energy within those restricted confines,
but it requires the discipline of showing up and working towards that…It isn’t just
handed to you. I promise the more you do it, the stronger, freer, and more
confident you’ll feel.”
Salmon admits that ballet class is certainly not always sunshine and rainbows. “It’s
so fascinating that dancers feel the most naked in ballet class. I don’t know
why that is, but I felt the same way,” she admits. “That’s the barrier I want
to try and break down…For my students to come to class dressed professionally,
looking confident, and saying ‘Here I am!’”
“It’s about getting excited for the challenge,” she adds. “The people that go and climb Mount Etna don’t look at the mountain thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s so far. I’ll just turn back.’ They say, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m going to climb this!’ with the full intent of getting there. They are going regardless of their fear because it’s just so exciting.” As perfectionists, many dancers ascertain it’s better not to try at all than to try and fail. That’s when our egos can get in the way. “As a young dancer, I would hold myself back because I was afraid of making a mistake and feeling humiliated,” Salmon recalls regrettably. “It’s a false sense of pride that we’re supposed to do everything perfectly.” In class, Salmon often reminds her students that ballet is a never-ending journey towards an impossible destination. “Not being able to achieve the same standard as Tiler Peck, Misty Copeland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, or whoever you believe epitomizes the ‘perfect’ ballet dancer is not an excuse not to try to find your personal best. There are only a few people that can achieve those standards. Instead of feeling discouraged by comparing yourself, get inspired to achieve your personal best.” The art and the joy are in the work itself.
And that “work” extends beyond a few tendus and pliés at the barre. “While there seems to be a lot more dancing—and more people dancing—than ever before, I’m concerned about this new generation of dancers,” admits Salmon. “There’s a lack of knowledge about dance history. Kids are doing steps without understanding where they originated. Can you really express the dance correctly when you don’t know the genesis of where it came from? If you’re really interested in dance, you need to do your homework.”
That homework includes understanding dance history and also taking proper care of the dancer’s physical instrument. “I notice a lot of dancers today seem very out of shape due to lack of training. That also makes you more prone to injuries.” To best aid her students, Salmon relies on visual and aural cues as well as physical adjustments. “Of course, I ask the student beforehand,” says Salmon. “But a little physical manipulation can be incredibly helpful in discovering proper placement in ballet—especially for more beginner students.”
At BDC Salmon currently teaches beginner ballet, advanced beginner ballet, and pointe to wonderfully diverse classes of dancers from tiny hopeful pre-teen primas and seasoned Broadway veterans to hundreds of students from BDC’s professional training programs and many of BDC’s own faculty. At heart, Salmon believes a great teacher is one who looks at each student as an individual dancer and as part of a collective ensemble. “It’s like a family,” she says with a smile. “You—the teacher—have to nurture and mentor each student differently.”
Salmon isn’t performing professionally anymore, the qualities and skills she
cultivated as a dancer have grown ever stronger in her teaching: taking risks,
paying attention to detail, collaborating, inspiring those around her,
creating, and being present in the journey. Most of all, Salmon hopes to
encourage those abilities, values, and aspirations for her students. “The memories
that most stuck with me were the hug with, ‘I’m proud of you. You had a tough
day today and you didn’t give up’ or the arm around my shoulder with, ‘I need
more work from you—You’re too talented to be getting in your own way.’ Those
moments were infinitely more impactful than teachers who just tell you how
wonderful you are all the time.”
“I was so lucky to have some truly amazing teachers in my life,” Salmon recognizes. “I am grateful for how they mentored, nurtured, sometimes babied, and often acted tough on me. I wouldn’t trade any of it.” She jokes that she’s a “torchbearer,” passing on the information she learned from her teachers and professional experiences—and selectively choosing what to bring with her and what to consciously leave out. “Because of my teachers who did it for me, teaching just seems natural …As many students as I can fill in my heart!”
*Salmon would like to extend her gratitude for her teachers and mentors, including: Dana Kennedy, Melissa Hayden, Margaret Thayer, Paul Mejia, Juan Anduze, Joan Saunders, Duncan Noble, Joyceann Sedimus, Meredith Baylis, Dorothy Lister, Trinette Singleton, Jim Snyder, Finis Jhung, Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, North Carolina School of the Arts (now UNCSA), School of American Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, and Broadway Dance Center.