SAB Trailblazer – Debra Austin

Debra Austin is the definition of a ballet trailblazer, having been the first Black female dancer to join New York City Ballet in 1971 and then making history again when she became the first Black ballerina to become a principal dancer with a major American ballet company other than Dance Theatre of Harlem when she accepted a principal contract with Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982.

Debra Austin
Debra Austin at SAB in 2017; photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Ms. Austin grew up in the Bronx and began taking dance classes at age 9. After a few years of training at Christine Neubert’s Academy of Dance with Barbara Walczak, a former soloist in the New York City Ballet, Ms. Austin received a full Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet at age 12. Four years later, George Balanchine invited her to join New York City Ballet.

While with the Company, Ms. Austin danced many soloist and principal roles in Balanchine ballets including Symphony in C, Divertimento No. 15, and Ballo della Regina, in which Balanchine created a solo for her. In a 2019 interview for Pointe Magazine, Ms. Austin shared what it was like to work with George Balanchine…

“It was quite amazing. Choreography just poured out of him. He was very gentle in rehearsals. He made a solo for me in Ballo Della Regina that always catches my heart. To have been in the studio with him when he created that, the thought that this belongs to me, that this is mine, is so special to me.” -Debra Austin

Watch a clip of Ms. Austin performing Ballo Della Regina with NYCB:

Praised by The New York Times for her ability to “levitate…and remain suspended in the air,” Debra Austin was known for her incredible jump and buoyancy. She also danced lead roles in Jerome Robbins’ The Four Seasons and Interplay and for the 1975 Ravel Festival, Robbins created a new ballet for Ms. Austin, Patricia McBride, Helgi Tomasson and Hermes Conde called Chansons Medecasses.

After nine years with NYCB, Debra Austin moved to Switzerland to join the Zurich Ballet where she danced principal roles (many with Rudolf Nureyev) including Myrtha in Heinz Spoerli’s Giselle and works by Hans Van Manen, further broadening her repertoire as a performer. Upon her return to the United States, she joined Pennsylvania Ballet as a principal dancer under Artistic Director Robert Weiss and danced lead roles in Swan Lake, Coppélia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Giselle, and La Sylphide.

Ms. Austin retired from the stage in 1990 and since 1997, she’s been passing on her knowledge as ballet master at Carolina Ballet, a company founded by SAB alumnus Robert Weiss. She also has returned to SAB as a guest teacher and as a member of the School’s Alumni Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. Her achievements on stage and illustrious career are not only historic in the field of ballet but incredibly valuable to the future of the art form. We are beyond grateful to Ms. Austin as she continues to inspire new generations of ballet dancers and our own SAB students to reach for their goals.

Read more about her experiences in her own words in this article for Pointe Magazine and in this feature for the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary.