Performer, dancer, actress, director, writer, teacher, choreographer, coach and mentor, Carmen DeLavallade was born in Los Angeles, California on March 6, 1931 to parents from New Orleans, Louisiana, and she was raised by her aunt who owned one of the first African American History bookstores in the country. Her cousin, Janet Collins was the first African American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera and at age fourteen, Carmen began studying ballet and modern dance. It was from Janet that Carmen, and her sister Yvonne (also an accomplished dancer) developed their love of dance. She began studying ballet with Melissa Blake at the age of 16 and after graduation from Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles; Carmen received a scholarship to study at Lester Horton’s Dance Theater.
Possessing physical beauty, elegance, and technical polish, de Lavallade entranced audiences with the sensual quality of her dancing. The first of many roles Horton created for her was Salome in "The Face of Violence." It was when they were both with Horton that de Lavallade began her long association with Alvin Ailey.
Concurrently, another aspect of her career was taking shape. Lena Horne had seen her in Los Angeles and had introduced the 17-year-old to the filmmakers at 20th Century Fox, and between 1952 and 1955 de Lavallade appeared in four movies, including CARMEN JONES (1955). During the filming, she met Herbert Ross, who asked her to appear as a dancer in the Broadway musical "House of Flowers" (1954), which he choreographed. During that engagement in 1955, de Lavallade met and married the dancer and actor Geoffrey Holder.