This week, I had the honor and privilege to attend a panel discussion. Moderated by cultural historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild and an esteemed panel of African American female dance phenoms Francesca Harper, Theresa Howard, Christina Johnson, and Joan Myers Brown discussed their stories about being black in ballet.
It was truly amazing to hear each of their stories. Ballet has a history of being elite and exclusive, despite being such a beautiful art. Each talked about how they “fell in love with ballet” simply because of the joy they felt from dancing. Being Black actually was not a factor for them. However, it was to society as they were constantly viewed by the color of their skin. Each of these women are trailblazers as they broke the barriers that helped create a path for others after them such as Misty Copeland. They created platforms that didn’t exist, therefore challenging racism head on and shattering the “traditional” view of being a ballet dancer.
I personally, got very emotional listening to these women. In so many ways I could relate. Growing up in the suburbs, I attended a predominantly White elementary school. At the time, I didn’t see color. It wasn’t until I was in the 1st grade and we were learning about segregation. We learned how Whites went to one school and Blacks to another. It was then, a boy said to me that if this was the 1950s I wouldn’t be allowed to go to their school. That was when I first realized I was Black.
On the other side of the coin, I knew I loved to dance. Being that I was shy and didn’t have many friends at school, dance became that voice I never really used. And I studied ballet for eight years in the Royal Academy of Dance. I loved it. And my teachers saw I had a talent for it. Even though I chose not to pursue ballet as a career, in some ways I feel my surroundings discouraged me. Although I was petite, I had more curves and my body moved differently than my White counterparts, which made me feel like I wasn’t as good. I felt like I could never truly fit in and began to lose interest in pursuing ballet. I then chose to study other dance forms where individuality was more accepted such as tap and hip hop.
The path I chose is different than most as I chose the more administrative way in the arts, I am happy. I now use my platform to help elevate others, especially those who may not always get to participate in the arts or get the recognition they deserve.
One thing that I walked away from the panel is that just because you don’t fulfill your dreams, doesn’t mean it stops there. You can always share your story and inspire someone in the next generation to pick up where you left off. What a powerful statement! And it’s true. You can be an inspiration to keep the dream alive.