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Lauren Anderson: A Houstonian who blazed a trail for ballet dancers

Written by on February 9, 2021

Native Houstonian Lauren Anderson has flourished in one the most detailed artforms in the world — professional ballet. She is a former principal ballerina of the Houston Ballet, as well as the first African American to be promoted to such a position within the company.

Her persistence to excel resulted in a remarkable breakthrough in American ballet history.

Anderson was born on Feb. 19, 1965. She began her training at 7 years old as one of the only Black students in her class. She was eventually exposed to Black dancers when she attended a performance by Author Mitchell’s dance company, Dance Theatre of Harlem. To finally see brown-skinned girls and brown-skinned guys doing what they loved the most really helped her to feel more connected to the art of dancing.

At the age of 18, she joined the Houston Ballet (the fourth-largest professional ballet company in the U.S.) as a ballerina in the Corps de Ballet, which means a group of dancers.

Her artistry allowed for a shift in her position from Corps de Ballet to soloist. She was promoted to principal dancer in 1990, the only African American at that time to fulfill the position at the Houston Ballet.

Lauren Anderson

The Houston Ballet received pushback for its decision to promote Anderson. Bigoted onlookers, including those in supremacy groups, made statements such as “Black people don’t belong in ballet” and should not be promoted. The company’s director, Ben Stevenson, ignored such statements and became one of Anderson’s most fierce advocates. He protected her from racist criticism.

For the rehearsal of Swan Lake, one spectator suggested to the director that Anderson should not be in the center of the formation because it would disrupt the uniformity. However, in a photo that was taken during the Swan Lake performance, Anderson can be seen directly in the center of the formation. Stevenson knew he had made the right decision.

As a principal dancer, her opportunities increased, allowing her to perform in leading roles in several acclaimed ballets like Firebird, Don Quixote, Cleopatra, and The Nutcracker, just to name a few. Her original, one-of-a-kind performance in Cleopatra sparked international recognition.

With her groundbreaking talent and tenacious determination, Anderson reached a major milestone in history becoming the first African American principal dancer in any major ballet company, nationally and internationally.

With extraordinary talent comes extraordinary recognition. Anderson received numerous accolades by impressing audiences around the world. In 1990, she received the Special Jury Award at the International Ballet Competition as well as the International Critics Award in Chile. Recently, she was awarded the Texas Medal of Arts Award (2017) and the Barbara Jordan Breaking Barriers Award from the Harris County Democratic Party.

In 2006, the prima ballerina and honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority posed on the stage in her salmon pink ensemble (one of the official colors for the sorority) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and kissed the sold-out theatre goodbye. It was the last time she would perform as the principal ballerina.

But this was not the end of her trailblazing career, Anderson retired from dancing in order to teach and inspire young women and men to be the best dancers they can be. She is the associate director of Houston Ballet’s Education and Community Engagement Department. She also teaches at the Houston Ballet. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she also hosted masterclasses for schools throughout the city.

You may not have gotten the chance to see Lauren Anderson soar across the stage, but you can observe her pointe shoes from her final performance at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, still flexing with the same passion and poise as they did when gliding across the stage.

■ This story was written to chronicle Houston’s Black history as part of a partnership between KTSU2, “The Voice”, and KPRC-TV, for Black History Month.