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Lorraine Graves, Pioneering Harlem Ballerina, Dies at 66

Lorraine Graves, a ballerina known for her willowy frame and majestic grace who starred as a principal dancer for the groundbreaking Dance Theater of Harlem for nearly two decades, died on March 21 in Norfolk, Va. She was 66.

Her nephew Jason Graves said the cause of her death, in a hospital, was yet to be determined.

Ms. Graves broke barriers — not only as a celebrated dancer for a multiracial company that showcased African American excellence in a traditionally European art form, but also, at a towering 5-foot-10 ½, as an exceptionally tall one.

For a female dancer, “five foot four, five foot six is considered tall,” Virginia Johnson, a former principal dancer and artistic director for the Dance Theater of Harlem, said in an interview. “Because once you get on pointe, you’re adding another six inches to your height, and so having a partner who’s tall enough to partner you is an issue.”

Fortunately, the company had plenty of tall male dancers. That allowed Ms. Graves an opportunity to leverage her unique physicality, which over the course of her career she showed off in performances around the world, including before world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela.

“She was commanding,” Ms. Johnson said. “She had a lot of power as a dancer, and had a magnificent jump.”

Dance Theater of Harlem was formed in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, an international star who was the first African American principal dancer at New York City Ballet, with Karel Shook, a renowned ballet master who had trained Mr. Mitchell.

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