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Lavinia Williams
Born: 1916
Died: July 19, 1989
Occupation: dancer
Lavinia Williams was born in Philadelphia and began taking dance lessons at the age of three. Her family relocated to Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1920, where she studied ballet through her high school years. As a young adult, Williams moved to New York after she won a scholarship to the Art Students' League in 1935. In order to raise money to buy supplies, she became a dance teacher at the Urban League in Brooklyn. One of the models at the Art Students' League was a dancer with Eugene Von Grona's American Negro Ballet. When Williams began attending rehearsals to sketch the dancers, Van Grona invited her to audition, and she was accepted into the company. Williams danced with the American Negro Ballet for three years in the late 1930s; when the company disbanded in 1940, she danced for one season with Agnes de Mille's American Ballet Theatre, appearing in the debut of de Mille's "Obeah!" ("Black Ritual").

Katherine Dunham, who had recently relocated from Chicago to New York, saw Williams perform with the American Ballet Theatre and asked her to join the Dunham company, where Williams remained from 1940 through 1945 as a dancer and instructor. In her work with Dunham, Williams received a solid background in Caribbean dance, with an emphasis on Haitian traditions, and she discovered an interest in ethnic dance that she developed throughout her life. She danced numerous solos with the company in works such as "Rites de Passage," "Bolero," "Rara Tonga," as well as the broadway musical "Cabin in the Sky" (1940) and films such as STORMY WEATHER (1943). Williams left the Dunham Company to join Sivilla Ford as a ballet instructor at the first Katherine Dunham School of Dance in Manhattan, where Williams remained for one year, drawing upon her knowledge of folk dance as well as her skills in classical ballet. She then toured Europe in Noble Sissle's revival of "Shuffle Along" (1945-1946) and returned to New York in 1946 to dance in a revival of "Showboat" and the first production of "Finian's Rainbow". She later appeared in a production of "My Darlin' Aida "(1952).

While she was performing in "Finian's Rainbow," Williams married Shannon Yarborough, purchased a house in Brooklyn, and converted the basement into a dance school. In 1953 the Haitian Education Bureau and the Bureau of Tourism hired Williams to develop their national school of dance. In Haiti, she trained the National Folklore Group, taught at a girls' high school, and trained monitors from the Bureau of Sports to become dance teachers. In 1954, she founded the Haitian Institute of Folklore and Classic Dance and became the director of Haiti's Theatre de Verdure. She remained in Haiti for 26 years, training hundreds of dancers, including her daughter, Sara Yarborough, who became a professional dancer.

From 1972 to 1980 Williams traveled to other countries -- including Guyana (1972-1976) and the Bahamas (1976-1980) -- to develop national schools of dance. In 1985 she returned to Haiti to assist the government in organizing the National School of Dance of Haiti and the Ballet National d'Haiti. She returned to New York in the late 1980s and taught dance at Alvin Ailey American Dance Center School, New York University, Steps, and Jo Jo's Dance Factory until she suffered a heart attack and died on July 19, 1989.

-- Zita Allen

Dunning, Jennifer. "Lavinia Williams, 73, A Dancer." NEW YORK TIMES, August 10, 1989.
"Lavinia Williams: History in Motion." IN-STEP (April 1980): 3, 16.
Yarborough, Lavinia Williams."Haiti Where I Dance and Teach." DANCE MAGAZINE (October 1956): 4244, 7679.

Source Citation: "Lavinia Williams." ENCYCLOPEDIA OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN CULTURE AND HISTORY. 5 vols. Macmillan, 1996. Reprinted by permission of Gale Group.