“I was so little! My mother took me when I was about 5 to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. They did Coppélia, and I remember being so overwhelmed by the orchestra, the curtains, the lights, that I started crying. At that age I was too young for the School of American Ballet, so my mother took me to the Dalcroze school, where I learned tempi and meter and things like that—well, a young person’s version of them,” she said in 2014 in an interview in Pointe Magazine.
As one of the black ballerinas, Wilkinson was exposed to racism in many parts of the country while on tour. In the Pointe Magazine interview, she described an incident where she encountered Ku Klux Klan in Alabama.
That afternoon, when we got to our hotel in Montgomery, a bunch of us went down to the dining room for dinner. When we walked in, it was full of lovely couples, families with little children—a wonderful family atmosphere. Then, as I pulled out my chair, I realized that they all had Ku Klux Klan robes on the seats next to them. I remember thinking, here are people who can be so cruel and ugly, and yet they’re so loving toward their own families. In a way it made me less frightened of them. They lost some of their power in my eyes.
She was forced to stop dancing for two years in the 1960s after she was forced to a hotel for coloured upon answering yes after being asked if she was black.
According to her, the company and fellow dancers made things easier for her in America until she left for the Netherlands. She came back to the U.S and danced at the New York Opera until 2011.
Her life has been an inspiration to many, especially black girls who followed in her footsteps including Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history.
Wilkinson received a number of awards including the 2015 Dance/USA Trustee Award and her life was the subject of Black Ballerina, a full-length documentary of her life and two other ballerinas: Delores Brown and Joan Myers Brown.
Tributes started pouring in from people across the world, including
New York City Opera press representative, Susan Woelzl.
“She was so loved. And none of us knew about her past. She never talked about it,” Woelzl said.