Britain’s first Black ballerina fought back from ‘brown swan’ racism
Being told as a young black ballerina that a leading dance company won’t take you on because they can’t have a “brown swan amongst a line-up of white swans” could be enough to stop you ever forging a career as a dancer. However, this shocking example of racism didn’t put Julie Felix off. Britain’s first black ballerina, who now lives in Cornwall, says the opposite was true – the comment by a leading dance company director spurred her on to great heights, but she had to leave this country to reach them.
Julie, who has spent lockdown giving online dance classes from her home in Looe, turned the incident around and ended up dancing for one of America’s most renowned companies, living in New York for over a decade. Sadly, she also faced racism in the States – including a frightening confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan – but the highs outweighed the lows; Julie danced alongside Lionel Richie at the LA Olympics and her performances were watched by the world’s biggest stars including Michael Jackson and Prince. In fact, Jackson wanted to cast her in a film he planned to make.
Despite being 65 and having a hip replacement, Julie she will never retire and has been enjoying giving Zoom lessons to students across the country from the home she shares with husband Mike in the Cornish fishing port. She reminisced to CornwallLive about her fascinating life and the horrendous racism which forged a new career in a new country. Julie grew up in Ealing, West London, with a white British mother and black African-Caribbean father from St Lucia. She told me she had an idyllic childhood, attending ballet classes from an early age, and never once thought about the colour of her skin … apart from the unforgettable day her dad came home from work covered in blood.
“I couldn’t understand what on earth had happened to him. He had been attacked because of his colour.”
It was seeing her own mother’s thwarted dream of a performing career that spurred Julie on later in life. “She was a budding opera singer but her parents didn’t want her pursuing a career on the stage. Then she met my father, who said ‘your place is bringing up the children, so you can forget being an opera singer’. She’d always been stopped pursuing her love, so when it came to me she said I’ll be behind you 100%. I’m forever indebted to her for that,” said Julie.
After being offered a 75% grant by the local authority, Julie was able to attend the prestigious Rambert Ballet School. “They were the three happiest years of my life,” she added. The turning point came for Julie in 1975 when she was in the third year and was chosen to dance in a production of Sleeping Beauty by the world’s biggest ballet star, Rudolf Nureyev.
She said: “We were waiting for Nureyev to appear – he arrived late, threw open the doors and in he walked in a big fur coat and the big boots he was notorious for wearing. He swung his coat around like a matador and threw it across the floor. I thought, this man is supposed to be the greatest ballet dance of our time and I just thought how rude he was.”
This led to the director of a renowned company, who Julie prefers not to name, telling her she’d like to offer the teenage dancer a contract.
Still sounding incredulous over 40 years later, Julie explained: “But because of the colour of my skin she said we can’t have a brown swan amongst a whole line-up of white swans … we can’t give you a job. At the time I was absolutely devastated. I thought my world had come to an end – if she said no to me, who else would have me?
“I was told we would like to give you a contract, then the big but came. The but wasn’t because you’re not strong enough or you’re not quite what we’re looking for, but the fact that it was the colour of my skin was an absolute shocker. That was the first real encounter I had that the colour of my skin might be a problem in the profession that I could absolutely not live without.”
However, Julie fought back.
“I’ve always been the kind of person that when it’s sink or swim I’m not going to let this allow me to sink, so I thought ‘right, I am going to do ballet!’ – I’m going to swim myself to the top. Funnily enough, the rejection that I had from this lady just gave me so much fire in my belly.” The following year the Dance Theatre of Harlem came to London to perform at the Royal Variety Performance. After attending a practice with them, the director Arthur Mitchell immediately offered Julie a contract. She said no as she didn’t want to move to New York.
“The director of the ballet school was horrified that I’d turned it down. She said ‘darling, darling you don’t turn down a ballet contract’.” The New York-based company returned to London a month later for a season at Sadler’s Wells.
“I went back and took another class and Arthur Mitchell said ‘oh you’re back again, I’ll offer you a contract again – I don’t usually offer people contracts a second time, you better take this offer up otherwise I won’t offer again’. Of course I did and that’s when my life really started,” added Julie.
However, heading for a new life in New York was daunting for the 19-year-old who had only ever travelled to Cornwall and the Isle of Wight before. “I cried every night for three months,” she recalled. “I was so homesick, but you have to say to yourself this is what I wanted to do. And I did love every minute of it.”
She added: “Racism came up in the career I had in America. I went to New York in 1977 and although things had moved on quicker than they had in England, there was so much racism and New York was a very dangerous place then.
“We did encounter problems in many of the places we went on tour to. One very scary place was Mississippi – we went on tour to the south for a week of performances in 1978. As we were going into the theatre the Ku Klux Klan were marching through the centre of the street. It became so dangerous we had to cancel the performances. “If you’ve seen pictures of what the Ku Klux Klan look like, in real life it’s the scariest thing. They were burning crosses and shouting abuse. The director said it wasn’t safe for us. There were pockets of areas in America where racism would raise its ugly head.”
She also had an ugly introduction to New York, where her eldest daughter now lives, during her first week in the city. Julie saw a young black man shot by two cops in Greenwich Village – “it made me feel sick and I can still picture it now”. However, the good times far outweighed the bad – both Michael Jackson and Prince came to see Julie in performances. In fact, the Thriller star was due to cast her in a film version of Peter Pan he was planning but the financial backing fell through. “He lived his life like Peter Pan,” added Julie.
She also cites having dinner with actor and author Peter Ustinov and standing in the wings with Luciano Pavarotti as highlights. “We were in Portland, Oregon when Mount St Helens erupted and the whole of the town was covered in ash. We had to cancel our performance because a volcano had erupted!”
She also danced in the closing ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics alongside Lionel Richie, which was her largest audience.After 11 years in New York she returned to Britain and became a teacher and remedial coach for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, first in London, and then moved to Birmingham in 1990, when the company became the Birmingham Royal Ballet. She married and had three daughters, none of whom followed in their mother’s dancing footsteps. “I probably put them off,” she joked.
Julie moved to Cornwall just before Covid struck. She told me: “I was living in Birmingham and my husband and I had spoken about always wanting to retire and live our lives in Cornwall. For me, living in London, I always visited the seaside in Devon and Cornwall when I was young. We put a marker on the first place being Looe and we never looked at anywhere else.
“I can’t retire. I’m still teaching. My students missed my classes so much so they said you could still teach us via Zoom and FaceTime. I said I’d love to – I find it really rewarding and I’m still getting results. A lot of my students are auditioning for colleges or companies so I’ve been helping them make videos, which will be sent all over the world.”
And as for that shocking incident all those years ago, she added: “That woman’s comment spurred me on. I turned it around and thought, ‘I am not going to let you end my love and dream’. I knew what I wanted to do and by her rejecting me, I ended up with a far greater career than I could ever have imagined.” If you want to read more about Julie’s life, her book Brickbats and Tutus is available online and in book shops.