Carmen de Lavallade's "fearless" journey to dance icon

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Carmen de Lavallade at 

CBS News

Carmen de Lavallade exudes elegance merely walking down the sidewalk. The legendary performer broke barriers in dance and brought tears to the eyes of big band leaders like Duke Ellington. CBS News' Michelle Miller caught up with the 86-year-old, who still teaches in Harlem, to look back on her long and inspiring career.

The uninitiated might look at de Lavallade and see just a graceful teacher, but the young women at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, who stand in awe of her, see someone else entirely.

"Young people at that age would come and say, 'Miss de Lavallade, we like you.' I said, 'What do you know about me?' But I forget there's YouTube," Lavallade said.

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Carmen de Lavallade CBS News

Yes. YouTube has a way of keeping the past in the present and watching de Lavallade dance is unforgettable.

A trailblazer for African-American dancers who followed, de Lavallade credits her cousin and accomplished ballerina, Janet Collins, for paving the way for her. 

"Janet's 10 years older than I …. That means I was really quite young and she was like, already, as far as I was concerned, an idol," she said. "But they couldn't get near a dance class."

That was because of the times she lived in.

"They wouldn't have a person of color in a dance class. The other people would leave. That was the time, you see. That was the time and she never forgot that. It was just heartbreaking," de Lavallade said.

Despite what her cousin had gone through, de Lavallade still pursued dance – and credits her cousin with her ability to do so.  

"Because I was coming up at that time the door was opening. And Janet introduced me to Lester Horton. He had no prejudices, that man. None at all. But he taught us to stand on our own two feet. We had to help make costumes, the sets, sweep the floors," she said.  

It also taught her "independence" and to be "fearless."

Fearless. That's one word to describe de Lavallade in motion. Her movement measured in style, not steps.

"The thing is, it's not a count," she said. "Not counting, it's living." 

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Carmen de Lavallade and Alvin Ailey

De Lavallade's life in dance took several turns. After convincing her high school friend Alvin Ailey to join her for lessons at the same Los Angeles studio, the two headed to New York to perform on Broadway. That's where she'd meet and marry the love of her life: Tony Award-winning choreographer Geoffrey Holder.

"He wanted me to be who I was, and I allowed him to be who he was, and therefore it made a very good partnership," de Lavallade said.

Both landed endorsement deals. She appeared in ads for Coca-Cola while he became the face of 7-Up.

"Geoffrey loved selling things. You know, I was terrible at it," she said. "But he was very comfortable at it."

Holder was comfortable in a number of disciplines, but de Lavallade was most at home on a stage.

How does she create that stage presence? "I don't know," she admits. "I'm still searching myself, you know. As you age, you're in another body. You're in another place." 

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Carmen de Lavallade brings her Kennedy Center Honoree ribbon to the Dance Theatre of Harlem.   CBS News

At the recent Kennedy Center Honors, where she joined and illustrious group of honorees, dancer Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre's first black prima ballerina, paid tribute to de Lavallade's place in history. 

"Oh boy, that a trip, you know, it was wonderful," de Lavallade said of the ceremony.    

And that rainbow ribbon she adorned for the ovation came home to New York for another round of applause from a new generation of dancers she continues to inspire.