The dance world is mourning the loss of pioneer Ballerina Raven Wilkinson.

A New York native who fell in love with ballet at the age of 5, Wilkinson is credited with being one of the first African-American women to dance for a major ballet company. She began studying at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955 when she was just 20 years old. According to PBS, Wilkinson eventually left the prestigious dance theater after six years, during many of which she was subject to continued racial discrimination.

“I didn’t want to put the company in danger, but I also never wanted to deny who I was,” she told Point Magazine in 2014. “If someone questioned me directly, I couldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not black.’ Some of the other dancers suggested that I say I was Spanish. But that’s like telling the world there’s something wrong with what you are.”

Wilkinson’s talent and unparalleled poise as a dancer ultimately landed her at the Dutch National Ballet, before she later joined the New York City Opera in 1974. Fellow history-making ballerina Misty Copeland cited her as a lifelong mentor.

“She experienced a lot more severe, life-threatening racism than other minorities experienced in the ballet world at this point,” Copeland said of Wilkinson in a 2014 interview with NPR.

Wilkinson just recently celebrated her 83rd birthday in early November. News of her passing was first shared by Slipped Disc. Additional details on her death have not yet been released. 

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