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Britain’s first Black ballerina reveals racism she faced during career

Julie now lives in Cornwall, but travelled the globe as a dancer (Picture: SWNS)

The first professional Black ballerina has revealed that she suffered racism throughout her career.

Julie Felix, now 65, performed around the globe as a successful dancer – but there was a much darker side to many of her experiences.

The dancer is now sharing what she went through to shine a light on the realities of the industry.

Julie performed with Lionel Richie and danced for stars like Michael Jackson and Prince.

But she almost didn’t make it to begin with, after she was rejected by a prominent dance company because of the colour of her skin.

Julie was told they didn’t want a ‘brown swan amongst a line-up of white swans’.

A poster for a performance featuring Julie Felix. See SWNS story SWPLballet. Britain?s first professional black ballerina has revealed the racism she suffered during her glittering career - including once being rejected for being a 'brown swan'. Julie Felix, 65, has performed around the world - alongside Lionel Richie and in front of stars including Michael Jackson and Prince. But her career was nearly derailed at the start - after she was turned by a leading dance company because of her colour. She was told they didn't want a ?brown swan amongst a line-up of white swans?.

A poster for a performance featuring Julie at the height of her career (Picture: SWNS)

But this setback was just a bump in the road, and she went on to perform for royalty and billions of viewers at the LA Olympics.

Julie got in to dancing when she won a grant to attend the prestigious Rambert Ballet School.

In her third year in 1975, she was chosen to be in a production of Sleeping Beauty by Rudolf Nureyev.

It was after this show that she was told by her teacher that a director had said she would not fit in in ballet – because she was Black.

‘In the third year the better students were offered the chance to go to a ballet company where sleeping beauty was showing by Nureyev,’ says Julie.

”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.’

Julie, now 65, still teaches ballet classes via Zoom (Picture: SWNS)

After the show, the director of a renowned company told Julie’s teacher that her skin colour wasn’t right for this industry.

‘It was devastating,’ says Julie. ‘I was told I had the ability, and I was a lovely dancer – but when you have a line of dancers all white – a brown one would ruin the line-up.

‘My teacher was told the company would love to offer me a contract, however because of the colour of my skin I would mess up the line of white swans and therefore I could not work for them.

‘I was gutted, I suppose if I had been told I was not good enough as far as my ballet ability was concerned – that’s heart-breaking enough.’

But Julie is the type of person who always looks for another way to get what she wants.

Julie grew up in Ealing, West London, with a white British mother and Black African-Caribbean father from St Lucia.

Julie Felix teaching ballet class before the pandemic (Picture: SWNS)

As a child, she was never confronted with ideas of race – until her dad came home covered in blood after being attacked by a racist.

After Rambert, Julie got a place in the Dance Theatre of Harlem, meaning a life-changing move to New York.

In 1978 Julie witnessed the terror of the Klan first-hand while performing shows in Mississippi.

‘That was unbelievably scary,’ she recalls. ‘They’ve got their white hooded with slits for eyes and burning crosses – just shouting abuse and the N word – it’s awful.

‘Because we were due to have a performance there, the director said “it’s too dangerous”, and that we cannot perform.’

‘I was told I had the ability – but when you have a line of dancers all white – a brown one would ruin the line-up.’ (Picture: SWNS)

Michael Jackson was all set to cast her in a film version of Peter Pan – after seeing her dance – but the financial backing fell through.

Julie also sat at the same table as actor and author Peter Ustinov and stood in the wings getting ready while Pavarotti performed.

After 11 years in New York, Julie returned to Britain and became a teacher for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, in London.

She then moved to Birmingham in 1990, when the company became the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

After having three daughters to a previous husband – Julie married her husband Mike – the pair moving to Cornwall just before Covid struck.

Julie has never let her experiences of racism get in the way of her love for dancing, and she is now teaching students via Zoom classes.

‘With dancing – there was nothing else in my life,’ she says.

‘I’ve had a hip replacement which has slowed me down – but once it’s in you, it’s hard to stop.’

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Get in touch: metrolifestyleteam@metro.co.uk.


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