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Battle of Britain's first black ballerina

PIONEER: Julie Felix today

THE WORLD of ballet may exude much finesse and sophistication. However Julie Felix had to develop a ‘thick skin’ to become Britain’s first black professional ballet dancer.

The acclaimed artist had to overcome racism and prejudice forcing her to relocate Stateside to earn the recognition she deserved after being told her black skin would ‘mess up the line’ of white dancers for a Swan Lake production in London.

But rather than being bitter about such a soul-destroying rejection, Julie rose above it all to become a star with Dance Theatre Harlem in New York when she was barely out of her teens.

In a glittering career she has toured the world, dancing in front of US President Ronald Reagan, meeting Luciano Pavarotti, Michael Jackson and performing alongside a host of stars such as Lionel Richie and Shirley Bassey.

And now she has told her incredible life story with the help of John Plimmer, a retired head of CID with West Midlands Police turned author, who has penned her biography aptly titled Brickbats & Tutus.

“There are still some parts of the book I can hardly bear to read because the memories are painful,” said Julie, who now has three grown up daughters and lives in Solihull, where she is head of dance at St Martin’s Girls’ School.

“Then there are other chapters and I think to myself: ‘Did I really do all that?’ When I was young I seemed to have so much drive and determination – no one was going to hold me back whatever they said!

“In fact, the more barriers and obstacles put up in front of me, the more stubborn I became to succeed. I knew I had the ability, but sadly, my skin colour was against me. It shouldn’t have been like that, but I’m afraid it was and I feel it still is today for many dancers in the ballet world. Racism is still here – it’s simply become more subtle.”

Julie was raised in Ealing where her mum Doreen, a white Londoner, was an amateur opera singer, while her father Patrick, who hailed from St Lucia, worked as a foreman at the Hoover Building in west London.

She believes that being a mixed heritage child prepared her for what was to come in her own life.

She won a place at the renowned Rambert School of Ballet where she was chosen to dance alongside ballet icon Rudolph Nureyev in Sleeping Beauty.


BACK IN THE DAY: Julie as a young dancer in Harlem

Julie felt this honour had secured her future as a dancer, only to be told by a senior ballet director that she wouldn’t be able to join the company as “‘white swans have to be white swans and a black one would mess up the line’”.

But rather than being crushed by this, Julie took up an offer to join the up-and-coming Dance Theatre Harlem in New York, which had been launched by Arthur Mitchell, America’s first black ballet dancer. Having never flown before, she boarded a plane bound for the Big Apple and lived in a women’s hostel for her first year there.

“I had never seen so many black people all in one place before,” smiled Julie. “Harlem took some getting used to and it was tough – a guy I met on one of my first subway journeys was later shot by police right in front of me.”

The further she travelled the globe, the more adventures she had – from living through the New York blackout of 1977 to experiencing Ku Klux Klan protests in Mississippi.

After a decade with Dance Theatre Harlem, the pull of home was too strong, so she returned to the UK to work with the Sadlers Wells Ballet as a coach. Then, when the company became Birmingham Royal Ballet and relocated to the UK’s second city 25 years ago, Julie also relocated to Solihull.

And what, out of all of this, was her proudest moment?

“It has to be standing outside England’s home of ballet, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where my mother had scrimped and saved to take me to a performance as a child” she recalls.

During a London trip with Dance Theatre Harlem, she was overwhelmed to see a giant billboard of herself dancing with one of her partners.

Not bad for the young black girl who couldn’t be part of the line because only white swans were allowed.

Julie will be doing a book signing at St Martin’s Girls’ School, Brueton Avenue, Solihull, B91 3EN, at 7pm on Thursday 1st October. Brickbats & Tutus, published by Austin Macauley, is available at Amazon, Waterstones and WH Smith

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