Carmen de Lavallade was born in Los Angeles, California, on March 6, 1931. She was raised in a family of history makers;her aunt, Adele, owned one of the first African-American history bookshops on Central Avenue, De Lavallade's cousin, Janet Collins, was the first African-American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera.
De Lavallade began studying ballet with Melissa Blake at the age of 16. After graduation from in was awarded a scholarship to study dance with becoming a member of the in 1949 where she danced as a lead until moving to to in 1954. She has since made major stage and film appearances besides the likes of Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte.