Image - speakers plus details from book cover
Live Stream

Karen Valby and Karlya Shelton-Benjamin: The Swans of Harlem

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Learn about the forgotten story of a pioneering group of five Black ballerinas and their 50-year sisterhood, a legacy unknown—until now.

At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lydia Abarca was a Black prima ballerina with a major international dance company—the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a troupe of women and men who became each other’s chosen family. She was the first Black company ballerina on the cover of Dance magazine, an Essence cover star; she was cast in The Wiz and in a Bob Fosse production on Broadway. She performed in some of ballet’s most iconic works with other trailblazing ballerinas, including the young women who became her closest friends—founding Dance Theatre of Harlem members Gayle McKinney-Griffith and Sheila Rohan, as well as first-generation dancers Karlya Shelton and Marcia Sells.

These Swans of Harlem performed for the Queen of England, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Wonder, on the same bill as Josephine Baker, at the White House, and beyond. But decades later there was almost no record of their groundbreaking history to be found.

Out of a sisterhood that had grown even deeper with the years, these Swans joined forces again—to share their story with the world.

Join us online for a lively discussion revealing the glamour and grit of professional ballet, a riveting account of five extraordinarily accomplished women, a celebration of both their historic careers and the sustaining, grounding power of female friendship—and a window into the robust history of Black ballet, hidden for too long.


This program is online only; pre-register to receive a link to the live-stream.

The Commonwealth Club World Affairs of California is a nonprofit public forum; we welcome donations made during registration to support the production of our programming.

Copies of The Swans of Harlem are available for purchase during checkout (U.S. domestic shipping only).

This program is part of our Good Lit series, underwritten by the Bernard Osher Foundation.

Bernard Osher Foundation

Photos courtesy the speakers.

All ticket sales are final and nonrefundable.

Mon, May 13 / 3:00 PM PDT

The Commonwealth Club World Affairs of California
United States

Image - Karlya Shelton-Benjamin

Karlya Shelton-Benjamin

Former Principal Dancer, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Image - Karen Valby

Karen Valby

Author, The Swans of Harlem: Five Black Ballerinas, Fifty Years of Sisterhood, and Their Reclamation of a Groundbreaking History

Image - LaDoris Cordell

In conversation with LaDoris Cordell

Judge (Ret); Author, Her Honor: My Life on the Bench…What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It


3–4 p.m program
(all times Pacific Time)


Free for members
$10 nonmembers
$30 members with a book
$40 nonmembers with a book
Free for Leadership Circle members and students (without a book)