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Woman with Halifax County roots finds life of success in the performing arts

At a time when success in show business was rare for African-Americans, Dolores Vanison Blakely broke through many barriers and made her way to the top becoming a co-founder and later executive director of a prestigious dance company in Manhattan, New York. 

The Alpha Omega Dance Company celebrated its 40th anniversary at the beginning of December honoring Blakely and others who have made contributions to the performing arts.

Blakely’s journey began March 25, 1938 when she was born to Lee O’shell and James Lionel Vanison in Lynchburg. For the first four years of her life, Vanison was raised in Nathalie before moving with her parents to Spanish Harlem located in the Manhattan borough of New York City.

Blakely began dancing between ages 9 and 10.

“When I was in elementary school, I went to an after-school program that was a performing arts program, and they had everything there — dance, drama, voice, and that’s what stimulated me, ” Blakely said.

When she began her first year in high school, Blakely and her parents moved to the Queens borough of New York City where she continued to study dance and attended the May O’ Donnell School of Dance.

Blakely recalled spending her high school summers in Nathalie with her grandparents where she tried to fit into their country way of life.

“Everything they did, I did,” Blakely said. 

She remembers pulling tobacco with her relatives.

Blakely said she wanted to be accepted, so she tried to be like everybody else.

One time Blakely said she tried to walk to the store barefooted like everybody else and ended up getting blisters on her feet.

Life for Blakely was so much different in the south and very simple. She didn’t go out much except for visiting family members and to attend church on Sunday. 

Her grandparents never allowed her to go to the movies because blacks at that time were forced to sit in the balcony, and they didn’t want their grandchildren exposed to that. 

Blakely said visits to the local department stores were also rare due to the separate restroom facilities for blacks and whites, from which her grandparents also tried to shelter her.

“My grandparents treated me more like their daughter than their granddaughter,” Blakely recalled.

After graduating from high school, Blakely auditioned for the Julliard School of Music where she majored in dance.

Following her education at Julliard, Blakely attended Brooklyn College and received a bachelor’s degree in dance education.

“Because I didn’t think a degree in dance would allow me to do anything else but dance, I wanted something to fall back on because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dance all my life,” Blakely said.

As she began her career in dancing, Blakely said she began to realize how much harder it was for blacks to make it in the show biz industry.

According to Blakely, opportunities were very rare for people of color, and she remembers being rejected on numerous occasions due to her race.

Blakely and her fellow dancers also often experienced discrimination while on tour, rarely being able to stay at a hotel or be served in restaurants in the south.

She recalls a time when she was on tour with other black dancers, and they stopped at a sandwich shop for lunch in Mississippi.  She said a restaurant worker approached them and said, “We don’t serve N-----s.”

“We were shocked,” Blakely recalled.

Blakely said she ran into many more incidents like this during her journey as a dancer, but she refused to let that stop her from doing what she loved.

It was those incidents that prompted to her to join the Civil Rights movement.

“We joined the movement because we wanted to be accepted for our ability and our talents and not rejected because we were people of color,” she said.

Blakely marched in several demonstrations including the famous march on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. 

“It was fantastic. It was just a very moving experience that I’ll never forget,” Blakely said.

 Blakely also was involved in the Harlem Riot of 1964, which started out as peaceful protest resulting after an off-duty policeman shot a black Harlem teen.

However, it quickly escalated. 

She said once things got out of hand, she and her friends fled the scene because they could not afford to get injured or go to jail because they had a show coming up.

Blakely remembers when she performed with Eleo Pomare Dance Company in Oakland, California, and they did a piece called “Blues for the Jungle.” The last scene included a dance about the Harlem Riot, and at the end, a guy threw some newspapers at the policeman.  

Blakely said this scene angered the crowd of predominately white college students, and they began yelling racial slurs and spitting at them. They had to be escorted from the premises by law enforcement officers, she recalled.

“It was scary,” Blakely added

 Despite the many obstacles she faced, Blakely went on to become very successful in the performing arts industry and had the chance to work with several big names in the industry.

She also participated in numerous big theatrical productions as well as having a variety of TV and film opportunities.

Blakely worked along side of Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway in the all black version of “Hello Dolly” on Broadway. 

She performed in the integrated version of “Hello Dolly” starring Betsy Palmer, and also she has danced alongside Phylicia Rashad of Cosby Show fame.

 She has performed with a host of companies including the Louis Johnson Dance Theater, Raymond Sawyer Dance Company, Chuck Davis Dance Company and more.

She was even offered a scholarship to attend Martha Graham’s School of Dance. Graham was very famous in the dance industry, and her influence in dance has been compared with the influence Picasso had on modern visual arts. 

Blakely is a member of Equity, the Screen Actors Guild and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

In addition to her dance career, after receiving a Master of Science degree in educational administration and supervision from New York University and a Master of Science in guidance counseling from Long Island University, she began working in the New York City School System when she stopped dancing professionally in the mid-80s.  

The former Nathalie resident has served as assistant principal for numerous schools, taught health and dance and served as a college advisor. 

She retired from the New York City Board of Education in 1999.

In  1972, Blakely co-founded the Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company along with her former dance partner, Ronn Pratt, and Miriam Greaves.

A year later, the three founded the Alpha Omega Theatrical School of Dance.

In 1992, Blakely became part-time executive director of the company until she retired from the New York City Board of Education in 1999 and became full-time.

As for her personal life, she currently resides in the upper west side of Manhattan and is the widow of actor Don Blakely who passed away in 2004. The two met while performing a production for the New York Public Theater.

“I met him in 1972 when I was in ‘Black Terror,’ and he was the star, and I was the lead dancer,” Blakely said.

He is known for his roles in “Pulp Fiction,” “All My Children,” “Under Siege 2” and “Strike Force.” 

 Through her marriage with Don, Blakely has a stepdaughter, Lenore Domond, and step-granddaughter Qiana Davis.