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Virtual | Karen Valby and Karlya Shelton-Benjamin: The Swans of Harlem

May 13 @ 3:00 PM PDT

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Learn about the forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas and their 50-year sisterhood, a legacy unknown—until now.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lydia Abarca was a Black prima ballerina with a major international dance company—the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a troupe of women and men who became each other’s chosen family. She was the first Black company ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine, an Essence cover star; she was cast in The Wiz and in a Bob Fosse production on Broadway. She performed in some of ballet’s most iconic works with other trailblazing ballerinas, including the young women who became her closest friends—founding Dance Theatre of Harlem members Gayle McKinney-Griffith and Sheila Rohan, as well as first-generation dancers Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells.

These Swans of Harlem performed for the Queen of England, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder, on the same bill as Josephine Baker, at the White House, and beyond. But decades later there was almost no record of their groundbreaking history to be found.

Out of a sisterhood that had grown even deeper with the years, these Swans joined forces again—to share their story with the world.

Join us online for a lively discussion revealing the glamour and grit of professional ballet, a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of both their historic careers and the sustaining, grounding power of female friendship—and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.

Info & Tickets


May 13
3:00 PM PDT
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Commonwealth Club World Affairs of California
110 The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94105 United States
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Commonwealth Club World Affairs (CCWA)
(415) 597-6700
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