Shannon Harkins, the face of African American ballet dancers’ struggle


Shannon Harkins, a 13-year-old ballerina from Silver Spring, MD will dance in this year's production of the Nutcracker. She's practicing at the Washington Ballet studio in NW Washington. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The Washington Ballet rehearsal studio is warm and humid from bodies in motion. Overhead lights reflect the sheen on the young dancers’ foreheads, and for the fourth time, Shannon Harkins and her fellow “Nutcracker” castmates have to start their routine again.

“Can you soft! Soft!” demands teacher Vladi­mir Djouloukhadze, demonstrating to the group the artistic, “flowy” hands the Chinese scene calls for — a nearly imperceptible difference from what the dancers had been doing. He runs over to Harkins. “Always keep this vertical,” he barks, straightening the umbrella she carries while she dances on point.

Harkins, 13, nods. She doesn’t especially like being singled out, although in the elite world of ballet, she is often singular. “Again,” says Djouloukhadze, and the dancers from the first cast — who dance the premiere shows with the company stars — scramble back into their starting positions.

Shannon is the only African American girl in the lineup.

This is Harkins’s eighth year at the Washington School of Ballet and her seventh year in “The Nutcracker.” She’s been a party girl, a soldier, a butterfly. She’s a Chinese girl in this year’s production, but she’s aiming for corps of ballet roles, such as a snowflake. After that, she wants a professional role such as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Eventually, she wants to dazzle the whole ballet world.

“I just want to keep progressing toward being at the top,” Harkins says. The “top” means becoming a soloist or a principal dancer at one of the nation’s most prestigious ballet companies — which also means breaking into ranks that historically have been all but closed to African American ballerinas.

The problem in modern ballet is the problem of the color line. Scan the rosters of the nation’s top companies and African American dancers are rare, while African American ballerinas are nearly nonexistent. The American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, Harkins’s idol, is a major exception. Copeland, ABT’s first African American female soloist in two decades, taught Harkins during a summer intensive program last year. She’s helping spearhead Project Plié, an ABT initiative to increase the number of minorities in ballet.

That will require years of rigorous training, intent on the part of artistic directors to include them, and time and resources on the part of parents, experts say. It takes a convergence of commitments.

In many ways, Harkins is the face of that convergence.

A grueling, costly path

Shannon’s mom has every nearly every artifact from her ballet career. Colorful scrapbooks feature “Nutcracker” reviews. There’s a 2007 program that Shannon kissed with lipstick and a drawing she did in second grade featuring a brown-haired little girl dancing high on her toes.

There's a 2011 letter from legendary ballerina Suzanne Farrell congratulating Shannon for making it into her competitive summer program: “Out of the hundreds of students who auditioned this winter, you have been selected as one of 10 young women to participate,” it read.

Juli Harkins, a project officer for a substance-abuse and mental health agency, and her husband, Derrick, pastor at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, have always had music in their Silver Spring home. An upright piano sits in the living room along with a dozen pictures of Shannon, an eighth-grade honors student at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, and their older daughter, Lauren, 19, who studies theater at Boston University.

As a little girl, Shannon jumped off couches and would stretch her limbs wide to shimmy up a doorway. Her parents suggested gymnastics, but whenever Shannon heard music, she'd want to put on costumes and dance. They took her to see “The Nutcracker,” “the gateway drug” into ballet, Juli Harkins says.

Shannon was hooked. “There’s that whole princess thing, that whole ballet girl, ‘I want to be onstage in a tutu and wear pink shoes and be on my toes,’ ” Harkins recalls.

At 5 she started pre-ballet. Now she takes classes Monday through Thursday — technique, then point. On Saturday there’s ballet and point from 9:30 a.m. to noon and then an hour of contemporary or jazz dance. From October through December, she has “Nutcracker” rehearsals during the week and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Shannon is the only African American girl at Level 7, the highest pre-professional level.

There were a half-dozen black girls in her class at younger ages, Harkins says. But “it drops off precipitously when you get to age 11 or 12. When they go on point and when the hours increase. When the time commitment increases. That’s when we began to see the African American girls that were with Shannon in pre-ballet” fall away.

Auditioning for summer programs — which Harkins calls a “must-do” to maintain technique — has been eye-opening. “Shannon is the only African American girl at auditions,” or one of two, she says. Summer programs can be cost-prohibitive, anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for several weeks. That’s on top of the roughly $6,500 for classes during the year. “For our family, it involves a lot of sacrifice,” Harkins says.

Outside ballet, Shannon says, she lives “pretty much a normal life.” Her friends thinks it’s neat that she dances like Misty Copeland. And she has friends from ballet class. “I’ve always felt included,” Shannon says. But “I wish the diverse ballet world was a lot larger.” One problem she sees: “the fact that a lot of people think ballet is for white people or Europeans.”

Its a sentiment that’s been especially true of ballet insiders, says Septime Webre, who has been artistic director of the Washington Ballet for 14 years. In an art form that draws from European court traditions, where uniformity is part of the aesthetic, dancers of color have a hard time.

“The top 20 companies in America generally suffer from preconceived notions of what beauty is; what a prince looks like and what a ballerina looks like," Webre says. “As directors break out of their own preconceived notions of what those are, they will begin to promote dancers who are coming into the corps of ballet.” He points to his casting of Brooklyn Mack as a lead in the ballet’s recent production of “Giselle.” Dancers show the audience their “idealized selves,” and it’s a view that’s often too narrow for white directors, he says.

Economics are part of the problem. Early in his tenure, Webre, the seventh of nine children in a Cuban-American family, founded a partnership with the D.C. public schools to teach pre-ballet to African American and Latino youngsters for free. Talented students were bused into the Washington Ballet School’s Northwest campus, and nearly a decade ago also began attending classes at the newly constructed ARC, a consortium of arts organizations in Anacostia.

The program has expanded its repertoire to include jazzier, bluesier projects. “I’m sensitive to this as a Latino,” Webre says. “The classical ballet canon is an expression of the dead white guys,” and the language of ballet “has to tell more American stories.” The Washington Ballet, he says, is not yet where he wants it to be.

“I have to be honest with you, even though we have worked so hard to develop our own ballerinas from Washington, D.C., communities, it takes a long time to build a ballerina,” Webre says. “They don’t stick with it, or they move on when they become serious point dancers and there’s enormous competition for the strongest ones.” Although Shannon is the only African American ballerina at her level, the first cast of “Nutcracker” has African American party girls, soldiers, snow angels and bumblebees.

Professional ballet companies will not be fully diverse “until the best ballet schools in the country become fully welcoming to 9-year-old African American girls,” Webre says. He calls Shannon the forefront of a new wave of talented, well-trained dancers that are helping diversify the school. “It’s a relatively new phenomenon,” Webre says.

Slow progress

The school wasn’t always like that.

Sandra Fortune-Green, artistic director of Jones-Haywood Dance School in Washington, says she auditioned for the Washington Ballet in the early 1960s on a dare from friends and was hired. She had once heard the late founder Mary Day comment that black bodies were unsuited to ballet.

“Nothing about my teaching that would indicate to a young student that if this is what you want to do, you can’t be successful doing it. I don’t allow color to come into that equation,” Fortune-Green says. But she’s not oblivious to race, and says things “don’t look that great in terms of employment opportunities. Every black ballerina cannot dance for the Dance Theater of Harlem. There are not that many spaces.”

“The art form at this moment in history is very, very conservative,” says Jennifer Homans, a professor of modern European history at New York University, a former professional dancer and author of “Apollo’s Angels, a History of Ballet.” “It is intensely focused on tradition, on the past, on the classics, on reproducing itself and not on engaging with contemporary society.”

“There’s a way ballet today is mirroring some aspect of our society that’s regressive,” Homans says.

In the late 1950s at the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine choreographed a dance for African American Arthur Mitchell, who later founded the Dance Theater of Harlem, that “still looks radical today,” Homans says.

In a September interview with DanceTabs online, Virginia Johnson, artistic director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem — which reopened this year after closing for financial reasons in 2004 — talked about advice she was given when she graduated from the Washington School of Ballet in 1968. Day told her she should switch to modern dance, because as a black woman she would not be accepted as a ballerina.

Of the nation’s top companies, which have a combined budget of more than $140 million, the New York City Ballet has one black ballerina in the corps of ballet, the San Francisco Ballet has one, and the American Ballet Theatre has two African American ballerinas, one in the corps and soloist Misty Copeland. The companies and the broader ballet world have a slightly better track record with promoting black male dancers, who are often more judged for their athleticism and frames.

Copeland took her first class at 13, late for a ballerina, at a boys and girls club in San Pedro, Calif. She has danced leading roles in “The Nutcracker,” “Don Quixote,” “Sleeping Beauty” and last year’s “Firebird.” She has helped give a face to ballet in popular culture, working with R&B artist Ne-Yo and touring with Prince.

Last summer, Copeland was an instructor at the French Academie of Ballet summer intensives and taught Shannon.“She was correcting me on my arabesque,” Shannon recalls. “She was saying not to lean forward too much, to stay upright.” Of about 120 girls, Shannon was the only black girl in the intermediate class. There was also one black dancer in the advanced level.

One evening in early September, Shannon’s phone began going off. Friends were calling to say Copeland had posted a picture of herself instructing Shannon on her personal Instagram account. Shannon hasn’t had any further interaction with Copeland, but says she represents everything she wants to be.

“In the 30 years that I’ve been in professional ballet, we have not moved forward much,” says Rachel Moore, who became the chief executive of the ABT in June 2011. She danced with ABT in the 1980s when, she says, there was a black female soloist and a small number of black male principal dancers. She modeled Project Plié after an initiative that she began at a classical music school for children in Boston. “I worry about the future of this ballet field that I love,” Moore says. “If we don’t address this, how can we seem relevant?”

Nurturing hopes

Juli Harkins and a number of other black ballet parents keep a running partial list of African American ballerinas dancing in professional companies in the United States.

They say regional companies — the Nashville Ballet and Ballet Memphis, the Joffrey in Chicago, the Miami City Ballet, the Carolina Ballet, the Atlanta Ballet and Ballet West — have better hiring records. They use the list to keep the conversations with each other going and to keep their ballerinas encouraged that with enough work, luck and grace, they can make a living and a place for themselves.

“There’s a presupposition that this is a world that can’t be engaged by people like Shannon,” and it’s a notion they reject, says Derrick Harkins. “People ask what our Plan B is” in case ballet remains closed to Shannon. “We say our Plan B is the continuation of Plan A.”

Sometimes it feels a bit overwhelming. “Sometimes, I just need to collect myself and just have time to rest,” Shannon says. “That’s usually not possible, but I just try to motivate myself to keep going to where I want to be in the future.” She hopes it’s a future that welcomes her. “I just feel so happy when I’m onstage.”

The Nutcracker

Dec. 5-29, the Warner Theater, 513 13th St. NW, 202-783-4000, warnertheatredc.com .

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