Tony award-winning actress Phylicia Allen Rashad once said: “Where the women go, the culture goes; and [that] any time women come together with a collective intention, it’s a powerful thing.” She and her accomplished dancer and acclaimed choreographer sibling Debbie Allen have inspired women for decades with their talents on- and off-stage, as well as their grace, poise and beauty.
Perhaps it was Phylicia’s sentiment and embodiment of elegance that served to inspire fellow Texas-born photographer and artist TaKiyah Wallace to set the foundation for the Brown Girls Do Ballet project. “It was something so simple – I was planning to go around and photograph 12 little brown girls as a small [photography] project and possibly make it into a calendar. It quickly grew into something so much bigger and so wonderful…an actual movement.” The premise of the project is exposing the artful grace and beauty of young African-American and Latina girls who practice ballet so that more diversity may permeate the genre. “They never see dancers like themselves [that] they can identify with. Many dancers told me that they were often told they can’t do ballet because they aren’t skinny enough or too athletic! [That’s why] people love Misty Copeland so much because they truly identify with her. When you see ballerinas, they are NEVER brown-skinned.” If young girls don’t see a reflection of themselves on the grand stage, they most likely won’t even consider ballet as an option.
So, why are “brown” girls so underrepresented in major dance companies around the world? Statistics point to just how acute this problem is for African-American dancers, in particular. As Wallace began to delve deeper into the project, she met so many intriguing subjects at photo shoots who were directly affected by this. “One parent, whose daughter is bi-racial (black and white) but she identifies with Black, cried to me because [her daughter] was always the ‘only one’ in her classes.” Wallace could undeniably relate to this herself, as a parent who searched tirelessly to find the best fit for her daughter to learn ballet, which ended with Fihankra Studio in downtown Dallas. “As I did research on affordable ballet programs in Dallas, on all the websites I only saw little blonde, blue-eyed girls and no one looked like her. I wanted her to be able to feel comfortable.” Fihankra not only serves students of lower socioeconomic status, but classes have a wide array of races and ages, with her daughter’s class ranging from 3-year-olds to 11-year-olds.
Her experience resonates with so many, including the chosen few African-Americans who have been afforded the opportunity to practice classical performing arts like ballet or piano, but find themselves ostracized by others. She acknowledges the stigma associated with having interests outside the realm of mainstream culture for young people of color, and seeks to affect change. “I love hip hop. I love jazz –but I am specifically looking at the genre of classical dance at this moment because I want our girls to see there’s more than ‘pop-lockin’ – there are more forms of dance.”
Beyond the artistic expression, Wallace emphasizes not just the mere positive impact of exposure to the arts, but the other effects, holistically. “Every girl [I have met] who has taken ballet – they carry themselves differently than other girls – there’s a distinct poise, grace, confidence – they walk taller and they just have a presence. I want people to see my daughter and say that there’s something about her.” And Wallace does not want to stop at her daughter; she wants to make ballet accessible to every “brown” girl – from Pleasant Grove to the southside of Austin, Texas and beyond. “I want to leave the world a little bit more beautiful than when I got here. I want to start a legacy, beginning with her.” The movement continues to evolve with the re-launch of the project’s website on March 31st, which will contain information on affordable classes, an Ask A Ballerina advice column, and scholarships. “We want to be the true source on the web for young aspiring ballerinas of color and their parents to reference for support in their journey.”