Carmen de Lavallade on a life well danced

Countless young dancers have followed in the footsteps of Carmen de Lavallade, the Grande Dame of American dance who’s among those receiving Kennedy Center honors in Washington tonight. She’s been shattering barriers almost all her life, as Rita Braver now shows us: 

The elegant 86-year-old in pink putting young members of the Dance Theatre of Harlem through their paces (“Lighten up!”) just happens to be one of the pioneers of American Modern Dance: Carmen de Lavallade.

Carmen de Lavallade gives instruction at Dance Theatre of Harlem.

CBS News

Braver asked, “What was it always that you have hoped that audiences would get from seeing you dance over the years?”

“The connection,” she replied. “Because I don’t feel that I’m there just dancing for myself, you know? I’m dancing for the audience.”

The remarkable journey of this California bricklayer’s daughter is being saluted this weekend with a Kennedy Center Honor.

It’s a story that begins when even getting dance lessons was a challenge, as she described in her 2014 one-woman show: “In those days, there were very few people who would take you if you were colored,” she recalled. “And if you did get into a dance studio, the white students would walk out.”

But her talent triumphed. While still in high school, de Lavallade won a place in a prestigious L.A. dance company. And she didn’t go alone. She was joined by a high school friend who turned out to be a pretty good dancer himself: Alvin Ailey.

Dancer Carmen de Lavallade.

Archive Photo

De Lavallade introduced Ailey to the world of dance, and they were partners for years. 

In 1954 they were invited to perform in “House of Flowers,” an all-black Broadway show. But it was a cast member from Trinidad who won her heart: Geoffrey Holder. They were married within three months.

Braver asked, “What was it about him that attracted you?”

“I must say that he allowed me to be who I am. We didn’t get in each other’s way.”

Holder became a Tony Award-winning director (for “The Wiz”) who often created both dances and costumes for his wife. The mementos of their life together are stored in a cavernous Harlem warehouse. “I lived with this all my life,” de Lavallade mused.

Since Holder’s death in 2014, de Lavallade and her son, Leo, have been cataloging every piece — letters, photos, costumes and clothes — and…

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