Mike Pont/Getty Images
Jessica Littles
Dec, 04, 2017

Carmen De Lavallade has a few thoughts on what it means to be an artist.

“The arts take a lot of time,” she told ESSENCE. "It’s a whole other process. You can’t be discovered tomorrow with no technique. When you’re doing arts, you have to come in knowing your business."

She’s earned the right to have an opinion. She was one of the premiere Black dancers to emerge during the '50s and '60s, working alongside a handful of other famed black artists- Josephine Baker, Arthur Mitchell, Alvin Ailey and Lena Horne —who were venturing through the theaters and concert halls, finding work and living out their dreams. 

In the '40s and '50s Lavallade danced as a member of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and with high-school classmate Alvin Ailey. Her cousin Janet Collins was the first Black ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera and paved the way for her.

“It was very hard for [Janet]," the Los Angeles-born talent. "She was at the Met and I came after at the Met. They were not allowed to take a class. They had to rent their own studio or go to the studio when no one was in there. I grew up in a time where you couldn’t dance with a White person. It was difficult for the arts to even be recognized.”

Despite that, Lavallade made a living as a working performing. She was a bastion of elegance. Like most dancers, petite and ethereal in appearance and on stage, she was sensual and lively, known for her dynamic presence. In 1954, she performed in the Broadway musical House of Flowers, when she met Tony award-winning performer Geoffrey Holder (Annie), who she went on to marry. They were married for 59 years until Holder’s death in 2014, performing and traveling as artists and partners. Their partnership is captured in the film Geoffrey and Carmen.

“He was very generous. He allowed me my space and I allowed him his. We understood our professions. It’s demanding. I have friends of mine who when they got married, they just dropped out. For us it worked. Not everybody is as generous as Geoffrey.”

Last night, she was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors alongside Gloria Estefan, LL Cool J, Lionel Richie and Norman Lear for her high achievement in the arts.

“I’m very pleased, I’m just sorry Geoffrey isn’t here. He should have been in that, but then that’s life. I’ve been going to these things for years —Geoffrey and I. We were on the committee to pick people and so we would go every year. It became our Christmas present to ourselves. We had a wonderful time. This makes it a little bitter sweet.”  

This year, the President did not attend the ceremony and the White House canceled the annual reception, after Lear and Lavallade decided to boycott the event. 

“The president hates the arts," the acclaimed dancer said. "He wanted to do away with everything. So Mr. Lear said, 'No.' I was in Richmond setting a ballet, and that’s when all that stuff was going on in Charlottesville and I saw the burning cross and I said 'I’m not going.' Then the White House said they weren’t having it this year and that was fine with everybody because, how can you stand with somebody and have a photo-op with someone who wants to destroy your livelihood?”

At 86 years old, Ms. Lavallade still performs and teaches. In 2014 she hosted a one-woman show at the Kennedy Center. She also mentors artists, particularly dancers, advising them on how to best navigate their art and industry. 

“I’m really enjoying mentoring young people. They’re living in a world that can be very demanding and everyone wants something from them. It’s very tempting to be hypnotized by all the glitz, but they have to try to be true to themselves and that’s very difficult to do today."

Adding, "You can’t be impossible. You have to know how to give and take, but you have to know what you really want. Open your eyes to world around you and then you can make your judgment.”