To celebrate Black History Month, we are sharing the stories of three African-American dancers who Alonzo admired as a young artist. Second in our series is Sara Yarborough Smith, professional dancer with Harkness Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and City Center Joffrey Ballet, whose performances with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater took Alonzo’s breath away.
Sara Yarborough Smith was born in 1950 in New York, NY with movement in her blood. Her mother, Lavinia Williams, performed in the first all-black ballet — Agnes de Mille’s Black Ritual—in 1940, and Yarborough planned to follow in her dancing footsteps. Their family moved to Haiti early on in her childhood. There, Yarborough’s mother taught her to dance and served for two decades as the director of the Academy of Classical Ballet and Folklore in Port-au-Prince. The Voodoo celebrations of Haiti also informed her movement. “[The] drums would get to me, and I’d begin to move,” she recalled in a 1974 interview with People.
At age 13, Yarborough received a scholarship to train at the School of American Ballet. Yet her move to the US was met with segregation. “When I first came here,” she recalled to People, “I stayed in South Carolina and went through it all—the separate bathrooms and sitting upstairs in the movies. But deep down I knew it was only a study course.”
From 1967 to 1971, Yarborough danced with Harkness Ballet, created by Rebekah Harkness. There, she performed new works by notable choreographers including Agnes DeMille and Brian McDonald. In 1971, she joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and toured all over the world. “During the season I set myself on a high, and I don’t come down until the end,” she told People.
Yarborough performed in almost all of Ailey’s repertory works including Hidden Rites, The Lark Ascending, and Revelations. The New York Times gave her high praise for her performance with Ulysses Dove in John Butler’s Portrait of Billie (a ballet expose on the private life of Billie Holiday). She even originated the role of Mahalia Jackson in Ailey’s La Mooche (1974), a piece dedicated to four brilliant black women artists and set to the music of Duke Ellington.
“Miss Yarborough has a stylish, sophisticated sense of character that speaks… She finesses pain into performance before one’s very eyes.”— The New York Times, 1974.
From 1975-76, Yarborough danced with the City Center Joffrey Ballet. She rejoined Ailey in 1977 to finish out her professional performance career. Yarborough’s technique and dynamic range were stunning, but what gripped audiences the most was her intense stage presence.
“Haitians aren’t conscious of themselves when they dance,” Yarborough explained to People in 1974. “While dancing, I get completely possessed, I feel it coming the night before. It starts coming and you can’t remember what you did.”
We are deeply grateful to Sara Yarborough Smith for her surrender, her bravery, and her commitment to the craft that continues to propel artists of color forward today.
For further reading on Sara Yarborough, visit our sources:
Alvin Ailey’s The Mooche / Sarah Yarborough [choreography], Library of Congress
Dancer Sara Yarborough: From Voodoo to S.R.O., People
Sara Yarborough Dances Splendidly In ‘Billie’ Portrait, The New York Times
Sara Yarborough Smith, MoBBallet.org
12/18/18 O&A NYC DANCE: Linda Celeste Sims- Pure Light, outandaboutnycmag.com
Featured photographs courtesy of:
Sara Yarborough Smith, MoBBallet.org
Ulysses Dove (with Sara Yarborough) © Alan Bergman, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
1967, Sara Yarborough joins Harkness Ballet, MoBBallet.org
To explore more photography of Sara Yarborough, visit:
The Lark Ascending, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Written by Erin McKay