Stephanie Dabney, electrifying prima ballerina, dies at 64 (2024)

NEW YORK, NY.- Stephanie Dabney, a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem who became an international star and a role model for aspiring Black ballerinas, died on Sept. 28 at a nursing home in Manhattan. She was 64.

Her sister, Janine Dabney-Battle, said the cause was cardiopulmonary arrest. Dabney had been living with HIV since 1990 and had weathered numerous health complications.

Dabney was just 16 in 1975, when she joined the Harlem company, which was founded in 1969 by Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet, to create opportunities for dancers of color.

Mitchell was a protégé of George Balanchine, and Dabney was a natural fit for the company’s Balanchine-based neoclassical style. “Stephanie had it all: line, feet, technique, speed, imagination and the most important thing of all, heart,” Virginia Johnson, the company’s artistic director, wrote in an email.

Dabney shot to fame in the company’s 1982 production of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” in which she portrayed the title role, a mythical red-plumed bird who is captured by a prince (danced by Donald Williams), whom she rescues from an evil wizard. Inspired by the original 1910 Ballets Russes production choreographed by Michel Fokine and based on a Russian folk tale, the Dance Theater of Harlem version transposed the story to a tropical setting.

Choreographed by John Taras, the ballet showcased Dabney’s powerful technique and impassioned stage presence, qualities captured in a Peabody Award-winning episode of the PBS series “Kennedy Center Tonight” that documented the ballet’s rehearsal process and world premiere.

“This is a role where you get to really dance and be the music,” Dabney said in the introduction to the PBS program. “It pushes you and fills your insides, and it makes your emotions come out.”

Dabney “flew across the stage,” Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times wrote of a 1985 “Firebird” performance, praising Dabney’s “regal bearing and lethal legwork,” which included soaring jumps with acrobatic leg kicks. In 1988, Jack Anderson described her in the Times as “the most incandescent Firebird imaginable,” adding, “One knew that this was a wild bird.”

Dabney’s Firebird even contributed to glasnost. In May 1988, Dance Theater of Harlem became the first American ballet company to perform in the Soviet Union since 1985, when the United States and the Soviets signed a new cultural accord after a six-year lapse.

When she performed on opening night in the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses, the Times reported, the audience gasped.

“The woman who danced your Firebird, she was wonderful, as if created for this role,” Raisa Gorbacheva, wife of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, told Mitchell backstage, according to the Times.

Decades later, Dabney’s performance would inspire Misty Copeland, the first Black female principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, who made her own acclaimed “Firebird” debut in 2012.

“Stephanie set the world on fire as she danced in a blaze of red tulle, with such power and grace,” Copeland said by email. “She owned the stage.”

Firebird became Dabney’s signature role, and she performed it more than any other during her career. “While Stephanie enjoyed performing it,” Johnson wrote, “she was rueful that people seldom thought about her brilliant performances” in other ballets.

There were many.

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Stephanie Dabney, electrifying prima ballerina, dies at 64 (1)

She was “sizzling” as Frankie in Ruth Page and Bentley Stone’s “Frankie and Johnny,” Anna Kisselgoff wrote in the Times in 1983.

In the title role of Frederic Franklin’s “Creole Giselle” in 1989, she was “unforgettably poetic,” Dunning wrote. “Every step and gesture was defined with a clarity and simplicity that made them shimmer as parts of a flowing whole.”

In Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” in 1990, she “used her incisive technique and erotic voltage to perfect advantage,” Alan M. Kriegsman wrote in The Washington Post.

Stephanie Renee Dabney was born on July 11, 1958, in Philadelphia to James Dabney, an osteopath, and Harriet (Smith) Dabney, a homemaker. She grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, with her brother, Christopher, and Dabney-Battle, who survive her.

She started dancing at age 4 at Ballet Western Reserve, a dance school in Youngstown. “I loved to perform,” she told the Times in 2010. But being Black limited her opportunities, even in school recitals. Her hair wasn’t blond, she said, and “didn’t bounce like the white girls.”

When Dabney was a teenager, she saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Youngstown. It was the first time she had seen Black dancers on a professional stage, and it was also, she said, the first time she felt hopeful about having a career in dance.

She received a scholarship to study modern dance at the Ailey School, but fate intervened when she took Mitchell’s ballet class during a visit by Dance Theater of Harlem to Youngstown. Mitchell offered her a scholarship on the spot.

Dabney turned him down.

But a week after beginning her studies at Ailey, she realized that she preferred traditional ballet to Ailey’s jazzier contemporary style. She enrolled in the Dance Theater of Harlem school, and within three months Mitchell hired her, at 16, as an apprentice company dancer. Six months later she was a full company member.

After Dabney tested positive for HIV, she continued to dance with Dance Theater of Harlem until 1994, then performed with the company as a guest artist and retired from the stage two years later, when she was in her mid-30s. She later taught dance at Spelman College in Atlanta before returning to New York. At the time of her diagnosis, AIDS had already decimated the dance world, taking the lives of artists as prominent as Ailey and Rudolf Nureyev, and effective treatments were still in development.

In a December 2000 article in Dance Magazine, Dabney was quoted as saying that in 1996 alone, she had endured four bouts of severe pneumonia.

“My lung collapsed,” she said. “I had a chest tube pump in me for four weeks. I remember the doctor coming into my room, surprised, saying, ‘Hi, I didn’t think you would be here.’”

She had been encouraged by actress and longtime Dance Theater supporter Cicely Tyson to return to the stage, she said, but “I’d rather be remembered as the Firebird when I was young and healthy.”

She was also much more than that, Copeland said.

“Stephanie is an important part of the vanguard of Black dance history,” Copeland wrote. “She demonstrated beauty, artistry and perseverance through her work and life in a way that will live on in every Black and brown girl and boy, and beyond.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Stephanie Dabney, electrifying prima ballerina, dies at 64 (2024)
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