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Pelagie Green Wren, The First Black Dancer At The Muny, Dies At 71

Courtesy of Hettie Barnhill

Of the dancers who performed as part of the Muny Chorus in 1962, only one of them had their own security guard.

Pelagie Green Wren made history that year when, at the age of 19, she became the first black dancer to perform at the Muny. Her participation was so unfathomable that she received threats on her life, just for dancing.

Wren, who passed away last week at the age of 71, went on to perform in such Muny productions as ‘West Side Story,’ ‘The King and I,’ and ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown.’ She married one of her bodyguards, Charles Wren, and opened a dance studio on Delmar Boulevard. She also was a dance teacher in St. Louis Public Schools for thirty years.

Hettie Barnhill first stepped through the door's of Wren's studio at three years old. From her start as a student in Wren's school, the 28-year-old East St. Louis native now has three Broadway productions on her resume. She credits the success of her career in part to Pelagie Green Wren, both for forging the way as an African American dancer and for giving her the skills and the fortitude to become a professional dancer in her own right. 

“I knew as a young girl she was very important," said Barnhill. "There were so many awards and pictures of her hanging around the dance school.” .

Barnhill described Wren as strict but compassionate.  When Barnhill's mother couldn't pay the tuition for dance class, Wren waived the cost so she could continue training.

Wren's tough nature pushed Barnhill to succeed and prepared her for the work atmosphere of Broadway.

"She was the first person who got me used to not sugar-coating everything," said Barnhill. "She was tough on me because she believed in me. I think because under all the toughness was a nurturing spirit. She got me used to the determination to push through because things weren't always easy at her dance studio. I'm so glad I was able to be under her wings. "

Pelagie Green Wren's funeral will be held Tuesday at Wade Funeral Home.

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer, hosted by Steve Potter and funded in part by the the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis, the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

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