After the first weekend dance classes, parents had approximately one week to get the appropriate dance uniform for our children, students at Dance Theatre of Harlem.
What color are you looking for? One of the mothers asked, a black woman with micro braids. This was already a stark contrast from my dancing days in Birmingham, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit, where I can count on maybe two hands the mothers (and daughters) of color at my dance school.
Dumbfounded, I looked around the store stocked with parents and dance apparel to reference my daughter’s skin tone.
Um…What are my options?, I asked.
I had never seen ballet tights this color in person. With a palette that included Toasted Almond, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Mocha and Espresso, my daughter’s dance experience began to sink in — not only were her tight choices more delicious sounding than pink, but the foundation for her identity outside of the home was destined to be a solid one based on the celebration of the color of her skin, which was not pink.
Another mom thought Caramel was my daughter’s color, I compared it with a photo on my phone and it looked like it would do the trick.
When my daughter finished her first class, it was time for the real test, and with her new caramel tights pulled over her slender frame reminiscent of my husband’s, she seemed to disappear. It was difficult to tell her skin from her tights. This was the “DTH look”, as posted on flyers around the school. But it was more than a look. These young girls, from a multitude of ethnicities, were embracing at such a young age the color of their skin and celebrating their differences and similarities, something not focused on by most in the classical world of ballet.
Like many little girls, ballerina was on the top of my aspiration list for a few years. I remember going to a little studio in Windsor, Canada at the age of 3 or 4 and dancing with little girls my age, their delicate hair wisped into buns. I was always acutely aware of my hair and skin color, wanting nothing more than to blend in with the pale complexions of my fellow mini-dancers. I felt fortunate to be so light and only wished my hair would cooperate.
For reasons I do not know, we never went back to that little studio again, but I never forgot it and would often practice pliés in my room. By the time I began seriously dancing, I was in middle school and well past the age most girls begin. Unlike my daughter, my body wasn’t naturally up to the task. My feet didn’t have the arch and hips didn’t have the turnout required to be a ballerina at the level I had imagined. Unlike Misty Copeland, who also began well past when most little girls begin, I was not destined to be a professional dancer.
That didn’t stop me from working hard with what I was given. I was fortunate to have such a wonderful teacher, Ms. Gayla, who encouraged me to keep going. Aside from all of her love and care, I was still the only black girl in my dance classes. A few others came and went. There was a younger girl to whom I felt like a big sister and am certain that on more than one occasion, the assumption was made that I was.
As dancers, we were expected to fashion our hair the same as the little girls I had encountered as a toddler. Pulled back into a bun as is the classical style. It is ideal, regardless of race because of pirouettes and again, for the line.
I think of this as I notice a sign at Dance Theatre of Harlem with multiple natural styles pictured that are ideal for dance.
An obvious style might be to cornrow natural hair into a bun or ponytail, a style my daughter has worn and loved.
I was terrified of having my hair corn-rowed into a bun. When I wore braids with beads for band camp in middle school, I made it a point to let the girls in my cabin know I was not like the other black girls. I was afraid to stand out – to be outed as black. Afraid to be a Sandra Bland in the eyes of a white person. Inferior. So I pulled my kinky coils straight into a bun and hair net, thinking that would do the trick. But assimilation does little to erase ignorance. Same goes for dressing my little girl in pink tights when the point is to create a seamless line with the dancer’s skin. But she’s lucky in that sense: There were no examples for me – no Misty Copeland’s black swan among the many white ones.
We lost our battle with the rising rents in the city and are now one of the few black families in our New York suburb. When moving out of the city became more of a reality, I began to fear what that meant for my children’s socialization where there are no Dance Theatre of Harlem’s; no mocha or caramel tights.
So I still travel, as many parents do, to my daughter’s weekly Dance Theatre of Harlem classes, where she and her classmates benefit from the opportunity created by Arthur Mitchell almost 50 years ago. It’s an opportunity that many outside the dance world have now noticed because of Misty Copeland’s marvelous achievements and an opportunity to purchase the right hue of flesh-colored tights that to me is priceless.
Garlia Cornelia Jones-Ly is a mother of two, a freelance writer, playwright and Obie Award winning Theatre Producer. Follow her on twitter @garliacornelia.
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