Of the dancers who have performed at Columbia City Ballet, few have had as significant an impact on the organization as Sylvia Dansby-Williams. When she first started dancing with the company in 1981, Columbia City Ballet was still deciding when and how it would be a professional organization.
“I grew up in the company pretty much. From the age of 9, I was with the company until my early 20s, Sylvia said. As Sylvia continued developing her career in ballet, she gained an enormous connection to Columbia City Ballet where she learned from talented choreographers as well as the senior dancers who were mentors and role models to her. Because she received so much support from the company when she was growing up, it inspired her to do the same when she got older.
“The good thing about Columbia City was that the older dancers set very good examples for us. I’m not sure how [the company] was able to create such a strong base, but the older dancers had the dedication that the younger dancers would follow,” she reflected. “You had to work extremely hard and show your dedication in order to achieve in Columbia City. We were definitely on that scale of a New York City Ballet at that time.”
Sylvia quickly progressed in the company and became one of Columbia City Ballet’s Principal Dancers. As she continued with her career, Sylvia was at the heart of transforming Columbia City Ballet productions into classics. In Nutcracker, Sylvia appeared in nearly every prominent role, with the Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen among her absolute favorites. Before Dracula: Ballet with a Bite became a Halloween staple, she felt a lot of pressure to make the production special through her role as the original Red Maiden.
Her dazzling performance in Dracula: Ballet with a Bite instantly connected with audiences and the production became a hit. “I know it seems huge now, but when it first came out, we were treated like movie stars,” she remembered. “The reception we got was incredible because this type of rock-and-roll ballet or whatever you want to call it was at the absolute top… all of a sudden, it felt like we all became famous because we had never done anything like that before”
In 1992, Sylvia briefly left the company and moved to Germany where she started taking dance classes and dramatically outshined her other classmates. She was invited to perform in one of her class’s performances and was hired as a professional almost instantly. “Once I was dancing, I started meeting other performers and I could tell they started gravitating towards me and other American performers,” she said.
Even though her performing career in Germany rose quickly, Sylvia was missing home and took an opportunity to come back to the States and return to Columbia City Ballet in 1993. Upon her return, she didn’t miss a beat and performed brilliantly in productions such as Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Pocahontas, and Giselle.
Sylvia’s contribution of her talents are an indelible part of Columbia City Ballet history. Through her ability to amaze audiences with her beauty and grace, as well as her undeniable passion for ballet, she helped set the high artistic standards for which Columbia City Ballet is known.
While she became Columbia City Ballet’s first Black Principal Dancer, Sylvia says she was primarily focused on her dancing and perfecting her talent. “We all worked so tremendously hard in rehearsal. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about it in that way. I was just honored to get the role… and growing up, it was just the direction my career was going in,” she said. “Looking back on it, honestly, I feel honored that I did step into that role as the first African American. The honor has a special place in my heart right now because of everything we’re seeing and going through and the fact that African Americans are still so far and few between in leading roles in ballet. There is still progress to be made, but it feels like an honor looking back on the experience.”
Though Sylvia’s performing career has slowed down since retiring from the company, she continues to be involved in the arts in Atlanta along with her three children, Timothy, Anthony, Jr., and Sasha. Her two youngest children are also multi-talented performers: singing, dancing and acting in various capacities. Having to adapt to changing circumstances due to the coronavirus, Sylvia currently works as a homeschool teacher and an e-commerce entrepreneur.
Columbia City Ballet extends a heartfelt “Brava!” to our first African American Principal Dancer, Sylvia Dansby-Williams!