Truth: It’s hard for me to write something this personal. Or rather, it's hard for me to write and share it. I’d rather write you a thirty-page thesis paper. My hope, though, is that this blog provides a missing narrative in the ballet world, with my story being one of many out there. The cost of making this hope a reality, though, is digging into my messy relationship with ballet. Case and point: when I showed a very different draft of this piece to my father, he pointed out just how much of the truth was missing from the story I was telling. He’s been instrumental in my dance journey, especially when it comes to finding my voice as a black woman in the ballet world. When he calls foul, I listen. After going back and forth for a while, I admitted that it’s hard to tell the truth about my journey. Why, though? Where is this discomfort coming from?
Perhaps it’s that old-school ballet mental conditioning that instills a silence in us. We are taught to not address our pain. How many times, for example, did we have teachers ask us ‘are you tired?’ or ‘are you hurt?’ with the expectation that we would always say ‘no, I’m fine?’ No, I’m not fine. The truth is that I love an art form that doesn’t always love me back. Ballet as a movement art isn’t racist, but the institutions that house it, and the paradigms surrounding it, are. It’s exclusive. It’s a relic of the days of the European elite. Why even be a ballet dancer at all then? I have to ask myself. I’m a 5’10.5 (180 m) black woman. I am as far a deviation from the ballet default as you can get.
And yet…I do love ballet.
I can trace my love of ballet back to my first class at the Robert Crown Community Center. If I close my eyes, I can see the mirror on the far brick wall, the rack of props on the left side, the wooden bars all around the room, and the wooden slats on the floor. I can see my classmates all dressed in pink leotards and my Russian teacher, Ms. Vera, dressed in black, towering over us. In my mind’s eye, my parents are right behind me, waiting for me to come out of class with big grins on their faces. In class, I struggled to get my feet up in spunky runs and but loved twirling with a beach ball in my arms. I remember Ms. Vera molding my hands with her own; lengthening my fingers and bringing them closer together to achieve that quintessential classical ballet look. I remember the first day I slid into the splits, feeling a dozen jealous gazes on me. Most of all, I remember never wanting to leave the studio.
Ballet was this little bubble of a world that I got to visit once a week. I had no idea I was any different from the other students. Not in a way that would make me feel isolated years later. I had no concept of the duality I feel now as a black ballet dancer. How do you explain to a three-year-old that the world of ballet is as beautiful as it is racist, as innovative as it is antiquated? What a lofty concept, even for well-established professionals who hold fast to ballet’s whiteness for fear of being obsolete. In recognizing this, I have to admit that I’m lucky. My parents saw my love of ballet, inspired by an episode of Sesame Street featuring Dance Theatre of Harlem. They enrolled me in classes as soon as I was old enough. I’ve had nothing but support from them.
When the realities of my blackness in ballet shaped more and more of my daily experiences, they were instrumental in me forging my way through the chaos. My father has always wanted me to strike out on my own away from the typical classical ballet journey to create a career that matches my uniqueness. My mother inspired me to stay persistent in my seemingly endless brigades of auditions, to not let anything take away my joy. When I was crying in the car with her after my umpteenth summer intensive rejection letter from a so-called “tall ballet company,” she asked me why I would want to struggle so hard to be at a place that couldn’t appreciate everything I have to offer.
Good question. What was I trying to prove? And to whom?
With both of my parents, I have always taken away the lesson that I should never settle, nor be defeated because I'm not someone else's ideal. Better things are awaiting me. Maybe it’s something of my own creation. The struggle has been believing that emotionally, not just intellectually. It’s difficult to be okay with that truth when you’re bombarded with the narrative that if you don’t do x, y, and z, you’re not going to be successful in ballet.
Now I can confidently ask, ‘Who defines success, anyway?’
I’m looking at you, so-called ballet gatekeepers.
I often take those lessons from my parents for granted. Not every young black ballet dancer has that insight and support from their parents or teachers. For so many, there is a wall of ‘I can’t’ that I never felt the full force of. In my most formative years, I believed that I could because I was told I could. The lack of black ballet dancers in my world before high school didn't deter me from the path. I had teachers who encouraged me, and I had opportunities that kept me motivated. One of the most validating moments as a ballet student was getting accepted into the American Ballet Theatre summer intensive in New York on my first try (much to the astonishment of the same teacher who told me I’d break a corps de ballet color line).
Doubt didn’t set in until later. The ballet world does plenty on its own to tear anyone down, let alone a tall black woman. In high school and college, I felt like I constantly had to fight to be seen as a ballet dancer and to get the attention in class that I needed to improve. I had a professor in college tell me I needed to join a company with ethnic diversity that would embrace some of my natural modern and African dance instincts. Do I love modern dance? Yes. Do I have qualities about my movement that go well with West African dance? M Had she ever seen me do anything besides ballet?
I joined a now-defunct ballet company after college. The company was meant to house ethnically diverse dancers as well as dancers with different body types and heights. On the island of misfit toys, I fit right in. At least, on the surface. The dream quickly crumbled into a nightmare that I don't have time to delve into today, and it left me with a ballet master who didn't hesitate to express how distracting my curves were.
Even as I write this now, I'm uncomfortable. I feel the need to sugarcoat scenarios or to make excuses for teachers and leaders who, quite honestly, let me down. If I do that, though, I'm just leaning into that mental conditioning. Trust me, there have been plenty of triumphant moments in this dance life of mine. I wouldn't stick around if I didn't see the silver lining. At the same time, I'm not going to pretend that I haven't contemplated throwing in the towel on numerous occasions because of my frustration with how narrowminded and discriminatory ballet institutions can be. Having to be the "strong Black woman," to educate others, to crack down on microaggressive, prejudice, or racist practices in these predominantly white space is exhausting, and I'm not the only one feeling that fatigue.
So, in introducing this blog, I’ll confess that I’m nervous about diving in this deep with an audience I can’t see and (perhaps even scarier) with myself. If you're like me, though, and you see that this dance world we love so much is crumbling under its own hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, I encourage you to embrace the truth. There is profound joy in embracing that truth. There is strength in embracing it. There is a community in embracing it. I’m not just saying that because I think that’s how I should end a blog post. I’m saying it because, after writing all of this, I do feel stronger. I'm saying it because I can't be the only one speaking out. I have more stories to tell, more truths to reveal, and plenty of other voices to share with you. So, let the symphony of voices resound against the walls of ‘I can’t.’ Let’s make beautiful, disruptive, unapologetic, anti-racist noise as the black voices in dance.