feature: the story of the brown ballerina
By Eye Candy
February 24, 2015
Though my memory is a bit hazy now, I once wanted to wear a pink tutu, point shoes and make boundless magic on a stage, glowing—like so many other little girls wearing their mother’s DIY platted hairstyles. My mom put me in ballet lessons when I was 5. I stood there at the ballet bare, my every plié and move to arabesque over analyzed, each one critiqued. The first time my parents gifted me with a trip to see the Nutcracker, that’s when I thought I had my whole life figured out. I’d work through all my routines, and be there in that spotlight one day. Just like that. I was 9. My Teen Spirit smelling black body moved in these white spaces, sticking out and becoming aware of how hard getting there would be. Finally, there’s a narrative that so many little black ballerinas in barrettes can identify with—like my once younger self.
By Priscilla Ward, AFROPUNK Contributor
Cassidy Jade is the director of ‘Brown Ballerina’ and she is doing our dreams some justice. She is the CEO and Founder of Crown Me Royal Labs. Her film explores what happens when a black ballerina steps outside of the black artist framework, and into white studios where their very existence is questioned. “The [Miami based] filmmaker’s mission is to defy stereotypes one plié at a time! Touching on issues of race, politics and social class Brown Ballerina explores the full spectrum of ballet, giving viewers a glimpse into a world that before now was inaccessible,” stated in a press release.
“When was there any part of you that said I can’t do this?” First female African American principle dancer, Lauren Anderson responds: “Absolutely not, there were people doing it, so I’m a person and I can do it!” - “I chose dance, but then it chose me and I didn’t have a choice.”
– “I had to find a way to slim down…after I did pilates I became a soloist.” - “I didn’t realize there weren’t other black ballerinas, then I looked around and saw there was Virgina Johnson who I looked up to and she was it!” - “We are perceived as strong, exotic and sexy, never vulnerable and dainty. You don’t think of a black woman as vulnerable and dainty.”
Jade started working on the film when she was 15 and was inspired by her older sister, Shanna Woods who started dancing at the age of 3. When Woods started dancing she didn’t know about predominately black dance companies until middle school. “Black ballet dance companies have soul. No matter what these companies are based in ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, they are grounded. They have a fire about them that draws me in and makes me want to do more,” Woods said. She began to dance and train with the Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive Program, Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre 2 in Chicago, IL and Cleo Park Robinson Dance, in Denver, Co. She credits dance with allowing her to see the world, she has performed in New York, New Zealand and countless places in between.
It wasn’t until Woods was 25 when she started to venture outside of these black dance circles. She became the token black girl and this is where she experienced opposition. She recounts being no bigger than 118 pounds until she graduated from high school and was “somehow” told she was too big. “As a black girl I have always had a butt and hips. Nothing I can do about that. At this point there’s nothing I want to do about that. My butt and hips bring character, if you will, to my artistry. They are also a part of my ancestry. Why would I be ashamed of it,” Woods said.
Beyond the patrolling of her black body, sexual aggressions were made towards her. “I was also felt up by a ballet instructor. It was very uncomfortable because at 22 I had never experienced that with someone I looked up to, admired and honestly had a crush on. I never had a conversation with him. I also never went to his class again. If I did, I made sure I did the work and left immediately,” Woods said.
That wasn’t all she went through, she was told she would never be successful because of her body, “though at the time this hurt, evidence shows that it’s a lie,” Woods said. She was told she couldn’t even be in the chore (background) in a “white” company. “We can’t have a black girl as a white swan.”
Today, Woods 29 is building a Black Ballerina Movement, along with her sister in response to the resistance she experienced. “The fact of the matter is that brown ballerinas simply don’t exist in the ballet world, at least not in any substantial number. As a matter of fact, our absence in the field is so evident that when researching the subject it was extremely hard to find statistics recorded that cite the plight of the brown ballerina,” Jade said. She said she believes, it’s important that brown ballerina tastemakers look at things we seem to take for granted. “Peach colored ballet slippers, nude color tights, white powered bodies, these innocuous seeming traditions may be constantly hateful,” Woods said.
For a black woman to have the leading role in the Black Swan would be an event. It would take precedence in the reviews, and probably set the headlines. It may indeed even yield “box-office magic,” but only pathetic because it would be an anomaly, which is pathetic.
“If even one major ballet company were to entrust a black dancer with such a career-changing turn, surely it could inspire the next generation in a dramatic way, as effectively, perhaps, as increased regional youth classes,” Jade said.
Photo credit: Dominic Easter
This film has inspired Jade to talk to little girls under the age of 13. She hopes to encourage them to try things they wouldn’t normally. The film has a universal message of self-love and power found in defining one’s personal path. “We’re taught to relate, not to think for ourselves so that it’s easy to find comfort in boxes that fit a specific character. Once you step outside that character, you become human,” Jade said.
You can catch a screening of this powerful short film during one of the following tour dates:
Event: Brown Ballerina Block Party: Cultural Arts Day Party
Date: February 28th
Venue name: Sehiii
Address: 1103 Fulton Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238
Event Details: The #BBTour is coming to Brooklyn! Guest will enjoy live art, poetry, live music, drinks, 90s jams, and the short film screening of Brown Ballerina. Special guest renownd artist/illustrator Markus Prime.
Future Dates: Miami “The Village” March 28, 2015, Chicago April 2015, Cali Tour Summer 2015
* Priscilla Ward is a writer whose work has been featured on Health.com, Youngist.org, as well as in Essence and Ammo magazine. She’s obsessed with natural hair, bell hooks, sandwiches and really cool art shows. You can find her tweeting about running one moment and being black the next @Macaronifro
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