American Ballet Dancer
Debra Austin began dancing when she was eight years old. At the age of twelve, she was awarded a scholarship to dance at the School of American Ballet in New York City. While as a student at the School of American Ballet, she also attended the Professional Children’s School for Academics and was handpicked by George Balanchine at age sixteen to join the New York City Ballet, becoming the company’s first African-American female dancer.
Praised by The New York Times for her ability to “levitate…and remain suspended in the air,” Ms. Austin danced many principal roles with New York City Ballet in works choreographed by Balanchine, including Symphony in C, Divertimento #15, and Ballo della Regina, in which Balanchine created a solo for her. Austin appeared in performances that were televised for the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center and the NBC television special Live From Studio H. She later left the New York City Ballet to dance for the Zurich Ballet in Switzerland, where she was promoted to soloist.
After returning to the United States in 1982, she was hired by her former fellow dancer at New York City Ballet, Robert Weiss, then the artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, to be a principal dancer for the company, making her the first African-American woman to reach the rank of principal dancer in a major American ballet company. At the Pennsylvania Ballet, Austin danced in Swan Lake, Coppélia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Apollo, Symphony in C, Giselle, and La Sylphide. She danced at a Gala Performance at the Academy of Music, hosted by Bill Cosby, while accompanied by Grover Washington on the saxophone.
Austin retired from dancing in 1990. She has taught ballet at the American Cultural Center, Palm Beach Dance Center, the Miami City Ballet School, and Cary Ballet Conservatory. When the Carolina Ballet was founded by Weiss in 1997, Austin was hired as a ballet master for the company.
Below is my interview with Debra Austin:
Where are you from? What is your most fond childhood memory?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY. Some of my most fond childhood memories were when Diana Adams selected me into the School of American Ballet at 12 years old on a Ford Foundation Scholarship. Second, when I was 16 years old and given the opportunity to join the New York City Ballet by George Balanchine.
Did you always want to dance?
Yes, from the time I was 9 I had always wanted to dance. My friend down the street was taking ballet and I asked my parents if I could do it too. The rest is history.
If you didn’t dance what would you have done and become?
If I didn’t dance, I would have become an interior designer. I always had a love and interest in it.
Who were your favorite teachers at School of American Ballet?
I loved all my teachers at SAB. But, Stanley Williams especially.
What was Mr. B like?
An overall genius. Mr. B was also very patient, a choreographic genius, and an amazing teacher.
What do you think about Misty Copeland’s amazing success after being one of the first African American women to break down racial barriers entering into New York City Ballet in the late 1970’s, early 80’s?
Back in the 70s, there were no social media, and not that many people knew about me and my successes. Misty Copeland opened the door of conversation by utilizing her platform and spreading the message through all media.
What are you currently doing?
I am currently a Ballet Master for Carolina Ballet and a Teacher for The School of Carolina Ballet.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself continuing to teach, advocate, and share my message, especially to young black dancers.
What is your favorite quote?
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.