Black Girls Can Be Ballerinas, Too

Growing up in a dance studio was probably one of the most rewarding things that my parents afforded me. I learned self-discipline, the value of hard work, and how to work in a team with others. Having a creative outlet in my life is something that I cherish, and I will always remember the fond memories made within those studio walls. While being a dancer was a wonderful experience, there were some aspects that were difficult for me. Being a young black woman, I found myself constantly struggling with my identity in the dance world. At a young age, I gravitated towards tap dance and loved watching videos of Savion Glover and Gregory Hines perform. These black men, along with many others, showed me something that I could connect to within the dance world. When it came to ballet, however, that connection simply was missing.

I remember learning about Anna Pavlova one year for a fourth-grade biography project. From the late 19th to early 20th centuries, this Russian ballerina was beautiful, poised, and an excellent dancer. I remember being in awe of her as I did my research, but also feeling like her status in the ballet world was something that was unattainable for me.  While she emulated the long lines that a ballerina’s body is supposed to create, I felt betrayed by my own body as my “too large rear” stuck out and my hips were too wide. And as I grew older and my body continued to change, these feelings only grew stronger. I constantly received criticism from my teachers to “tuck my rear under,” only for it to not have anywhere to go. I would hear my friends receiving comments about their turnout needing to come from their hips, or that they needed to support their posture from their core, but those comments seemed to fly right past me because I was stuck on the things that I could not fix. I began to close in on myself during ballet class, standing in the back of the room and simply going through the motions for an hour and a half just to fulfill the requirements of taking a ballet class.

All of this changed when I was 15. When I stepped into my ballet class that year, we were introduced to Miss Gayle. She just moved back to Connecticut from Germany, had been “the first ballet mistress and soloist of the original Dance Theatre of Harlem”, and she was a black woman. I was in awe when she started teaching the class. Her movements were precise and elegant— she was simply beautiful as she danced. That day, I stood taller and put more effort into my own movements than ever before. The next class, I positioned myself closer to the front of the room. That year, I stopped receiving criticism about my rear end, and started to listen to the actual critiques that a ballerina needs. My turnout improved, my posture straightened, and I felt more comfortable than ever before in a ballet class. I began to love ballet for what it was, and not for what I felt it was supposed to be based on what I saw and heard in the past. I thank Miss Gayle for the opportunity to learn from her, as I feel it truly shaped who I would become as a dancer and a person.

My take away from this experience is that representation always matters. In order for someone to feel comfortable with what they are learning, there needs to be a mentor who they feel is “like them” that makes them feel as though the truly do belong there. As we strive to promote more diversity within the arts, I hope that we also remember to be the mentors of color for these young students. With that representation, I truly feel we will succeed in our goals.

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