The Black Swan Diaries

Sharing the struggles and celebrating the triumphs of being African American in the ballet world and beyond.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Time for Celebration

"God gives nothing to those who keep their arms crossed." -African Proverb


Wow! It has been way too long since the last post.  I have learned so many wonderful things since the start of this project, but like most new endeavors, a tremendous amount of personal investment is required. Fortunately, as a dancer I am no stranger to hard work. I love creative opportunities and have always followed my passion with tireless effort.

One new exciting piece of news is the announcement of a new Etsy shop. Yay! I have continued looking for novel and exciting ways to promote this project, as well as locate space to showcase signed fine art prints ( printed on high quality ink jet printers with archival inks, mounted and frame ready). Etsy is a fantastic forum for my project and I am currently debuting some exciting new items.


In honor of Black History Month, I would like to offer all of my blog readers and Facebook followers a 10% discount on all items purchased in my Etsy shop for the entire month of February. It is my small way of saying thank you!

**Make sure to enter coupon code BHM2012 when checking out to claim your discount**

Photography: Paul D. Van Hoy II 

I have always loved vintage and spent many days scouring over antique shops looking for the best performance earrings - changing make-up, hair and jewelry was one small way to keep repeated ballet's fresh and new. A small trick, but helped to keep the experience new. Adding some vintage items to the shop will be not only a pleasure for me, but will allow me to continue to share the inspirational beauty of ballet with all of you.
I have always loved creating things, and now with the start of this project and the very real need to raise funds for its implementation, I have found a great home on Etsy. Etsy combines both the creative dimension of this project with the fundraising mechanism necessary to meet financing requirements. This project requires generous support in order to spread the message of hope and inspiration to young women everywhere.

One of the goals of this project is to share inspirational images in a non-exclusive format and at a price that is affordable for everyone. Therefore, I have included greeting cards that are both inspired by the message of The Swan Dreams Project and quite inexpensive. Please stop by, say hello, choose a favorite item or leave a suggestion of something you would like to see. My ears and heart are open!

I need all of your help to keep moving this project forward, and in return I hope to leave you with creative beauty and inspiration.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

New Video

In case any of you missed it on Facebook

Paul D. Van Hoy II
Food for thought:

“Young people who are involved in making something beautiful today are less likely to turn to acts of violence and destruction tomorrow.” - Janet Reno, former Attorney General (Farnum 1998).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Swan Dreams Project

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit.” - Wilma Rudolph

Photography: Paul D. Van Hoy II

I would like to thank everyone for their feedback and encouragement regarding The Swan Dreams Project. This project is still in its infancy and I look forward to watching it continue to take shape over time. Messaging through the power of positive self-imagery is a large component of this Project, with one of the goals being to make the language and imagery of ballet more accessible to the African-American community. In order to further this goal, I have captured deeply personal images that personify the message of Swan Dreams in photographs taken in the community where I was born and raised.  Part of the proceeds from the sale of these images will go to community and non profit organizations to share the beauty of ballet with youth in challenged neighborhoods. To increase circulation of the Swan Dreams message, these images are being offered at reduced prices on I will continue to use this blog to update all of you on the work and progress The Swan Dreams Project is making. 

Dance for All, is one of a few organization that has caught my attention. I have been campaigning towards getting some of their "wish list" items fulfilled and hope that through the work of The Swan Dreams Project, we will be able to make a substantial contribution sometime soon. 


Just since its debut, The Swan Dreams Project has donated more than $500 worth of imagery, in hopes of inspiring and encouraging more young artist.

 The Word is Spreading!

Recently, The Swan Dreams Project was featured on the blog of a very cool and innovative company called Papernomad. The company creates sleeves for your notebooks, ipods and ipads that are made from 100% organic, water resistant, tear resistant and flame retardant paper. Environmentally and socially conscious, one of the company's passions is to "question existing systems..." Using paper materials to cover electronics is one way to start! The company's product is meant to showcase our uniqueness and individualities, and for me therein lies the beauty of their vision. 

I would like to thank the wonderful individuals of Papernomad, and encourage others to not only visit their site and blog, but to support such companies who promote individuality,creativity, and social consciousness.


I look forward to using my Papernomad notebook sleeve to document this project's journey.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Next Step

As some of you may have notice over the past few months, my participation to this blog has dwindled, as I have been working tirelessly on a project I promised to announce. Over the past few months I have largely put aside blogging to commit myself to this project that has become not only a mission, but a labor of love. Well, today I  finally get to announce just what all the work has been about and introduce  to you...

The Swan Dreams Project

One of my goals, even before beginning a professional career, has always been to change the demoralized, objectified and caricatured images of African-American women by reminding  young ladies from more challenged environments, that they too can command poise, grace, elegance and beauty-they can be beautiful swans. As a professional ballet dancer, I used my passion as a vehicle to get this message across. Like many others may have experienced, the need for such positive self-imagery amongst young African American women is greatly needed. A need which also transcends ballet.

Art inspires, edifies and unites. A community without art is broken, unrealized. Children who participate in the arts are better socialized and have improved academic performance. The gradual, yet harmful affects of cuts in the art, music and athletic programs in city schools all over the country is well documented. Children cut off from all creative and constructive outlets are left to engage environments commonly filled with drugs, violence and dysfunction. Breaking these historical cycles requires access to new ideas and possibilities. Ballet not only allows a child to cultivate discipline, strength, a collective vision and a sense of beauty and elegance, but opens up an entirely new world of art, history and possibility. However, none of these benefits redound to the African-American community due to cultural isolation, historical income disparities and the resultant lack of access to the arts, particularly ballet. In a global and pluralistic society, ballet would be enriched by company diversification, which would in turn increase minority participation, support and patronage. 

Through a series of photographs shot in my hometown, the City of Rochester, NY, I sought out the use of imagery as a vehicle for sending my message as far and wide as it would travel.  The Swan Dreams Project, with its goals of increasing minority participation in ballet, is not only a way for me to give back to my community through the gift of art, but to also contribute to, and enrich ballet itself.

(Images are already being donated to the City of Angels Ballet for a December auction, as well as The Thomas Armour Youth Ballet which they will use for the inspiration of their students.)
Paul D. Van Hoy II

How can you help?
By purchasing an image you are helping to spread not only the message of Swan Dreams, which is one of hope and perseverance, but you are utilizing the power of imagery to inspire. Pulitzer Prize winner, Eddie Adams, whose photograph helped change Americans attitudes towards the Vietnam War once wrote, “still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.” For myself,  it was an image of Andrea Long-Naidu on the wall of The School of American Ballet that empowered me as a young aspiring ballerina. Images do indeed have power, and what we don't see sends as powerful a message as what we do.

I hope these images will stand as a reminder that all things are possible. Beauty and grace are not limited by race or  status—they are boundless, limitless. Ballet is for everyone to experience and share!!!

(A portion of the proceeds will go towards non-profit organizations that are helping to bring the benefits of ballet to inner city communities. Another portion will go towards funding the reproduction of images that will be donated to community centers, youth organizations and schools, as well as future work towards making the art of ballet more accessible and inclusive. )

I hope you will find the power and the message behind these images worth spreading.

Thank You! 

Inside The Project

Paul D. Van Hoy II

The backdrop for this project is my native home in the City of Rochester NY.  Much of the photography and inspiration for the project comes right from the heart of my community.  My experience posing for pictures and dancing in full ballet attire on street corners and neglected neighborhoods throughout the city was both inspiring and enlightening. I was also extremely proud to tell astonished and curious bystanders that I was a ballet dancer from their community. One gentleman shouted out during my shoot," that's what I'm talking about, ballerina in the hood!" At that moment I understood the positive and transformation impact of art, and how connecting people to it inspires pride and a sense of purpose. Just seeing me in a familiar environment gave this gentleman a sense of pride as he walked off with his chest held high, as if pronouncing to the world, "We can do it too!” Throughout this project, many young girls commented that they had never seen a ballerina before,  which broke my heart.

October 12, 2011 from Philanthropy News digest regarding funding for the arts:

Arts Funding Does Not Reflect Nation's Diversity, Report Finds
A new report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy argues that funding for the arts benefits a mostly wealthy, white audience, with only a small portion going to emerging arts groups that serve poorer, more diverse communities...

Read the full article here

More Than a Stereotype

Dancer Michaela DePrince  First Position Films

It is no secret that every major ballet company has a pronounced lack of African-American dancers, from the corps to the principals. As a result, African-American patronage to the ballet is conspicuously lacking. Barriers to entry, such as the cost of classes/attire, and  stereotypes regarding classical ballet imagery, has left an entire population deprived of the enrichment of ballet.

 I interviewed the talented Michaela DePrince upon viewing a promo for the film "First Position." She made a comment during an interview where she stated her desire in wanting to be seen as "soft." I wanted to dig a bit deeper and ask Michaela more about her reasoning and feelings behind this comment. My interview with Michaela went as follows:


You once commented on the fact that you wanted to be seen as "soft." Could you elaborate on this a bit and help those who may not fully understand what you meant by this statement?

 I don't want people to stereotype me.  Many people think that black women are too muscular, too athletic, too large and lack the artistry to present well as a classical ballet dancer. I don't want people to think of me as a one style dancer. I want to be known as a versatile dancer who has the power to dance the grand jetes of a Don Quixote variation, but also has the delicacy to dance Aurora in Sleeping Beauty or a sylph in Les Sylphides.


When did you first encounter this idea that maybe you, or other African-American dancers were not viewed as soft?


I was about nine years old when one of my dance teacher's told my mother that they try not to put to much time and effort into their black dancers because they all end up either doing modern because they aren't able to control their power, or they end up getting too heavy in the thighs.  I have also heard other parents openly say, "Black girls can't dance ballet.  They should stick to contemporary."  Also, it didn't take me long to discover through online searches that there were very few female ballet dancers in top tier classical ballet companies.


Do you feel that this stereotype extends beyond the ballet realm?


I think that is an impression that people have in the general population as well. When people learn I'm a dancer they either ask, "What do you do?  Hiphop?" or they ask, "Are you planning to dance at Alvin Ailey or the Dance Theatre of Harlem.  It never, ever occurs to them that I want to dance in a company like ABT.  I may be equally good at modern or contemporary, but that's not what I want.


How has that affected you as a dancer?


At times it makes me doubt myself and wonder if perhaps I should just do what the world expects of me as a dancer, because I feel as if the ballet world is still not ready for a very dark woman in ballet.  Then I feel so sad that after all my work I might not make my dream come true, that I become even more ambitious and driven.


What have been ways in which you have tried to combat this stereotype?


I make a supreme effort to control my weight.  I'll never be anorexic, because I love food too much, but I work hard to maintain a healthy well balanced nutritional daily diet that keeps me physically fit as well as slender.  I don't want to lose my muscle mass, but I don't need extra fat.  Also, I work very, very hard at developing artistry so that I look delicate when I dance.  I work hard at exercises that make my legs long and lean.  I also try to perform in venues that bring me to the attention of the ballet world and ballet aficionados, because I want to change opinions about black female dancers.  Last year, when I danced at the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi a woman...a ballet teacher from Mississippi saw me and said, "I never knew that black girls could point their feet."
I hope that someday I can dance in a world class ballet company and teach young dancers, especially black girls.  I would like to be a role model to these children and share with them whatever secrets they need to know to grow as a black ballerina in the white world of classical ballet.

I thank Michaela for her gracious responses and remember all too well sharing some of her same sentiments. I know that she is not alone. 

The Swan Dreams Project

A few organizations already at work:

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is There a Lack of Interest from the African-American Community for Ballet?: A Conversation with Dancer Ikolo Griffin

Now that we are all back from vacation and our normal lives have gone back into full swing, I have been spending the majority of my time working on a very personal project that I look forward to sharing with you all very soon. My absence from the blog was do to this work that I hope will produce positive and inspiring results. 

Photo Ikolo Griffin by Sandy Lee
While conducting research for this project, I discovered an interview which included myself and fellow dancer, Ikolo Griffin, published in the San Francisco Gate in 2007. The interview was conducted by Rachel Howard and raised some very important issues that should be addressed. When asked about the disparity of African-Americans in the ballet world, my fellow interviewee stated the following:

"The African American culture isn't that interested in ballet as an art form," Griffin said. "I think that's what eventually caused DTH to sink. There wasn't enough interest from the black community to support a ballet company. But African American culture has its successes in music, in sports, in jazz, in so many other fields. And the ballet has enough support from other communities."

After revisiting this interview, I contacted Ikolo to elaborate on his comments, as well as respond to a few others. Below are the questions I submitted to Mr. Griffin, as well as his responses.

In your opinion, why is there so little participation and interest for ballet by African-Americans?

Fundamentally, ballet in America today rarely offers relatable programming for the African-American community, and there is not enough effort to attract new and diverse audiences. People go to the theater to see something of themselves; to see something they can relate to and feel a genuine emotional or cultural connection. You can’t blame people for not being interested in something that is not emotionally, culturally, or artistically interesting to them. If ballet is to be a truly American art form, it should reflect all aspects of the American condition and thereby attract more interest and participation from all communities. The only place that I’ve really seen ballet inspire diverse communities was at Dance Theatre of Harlem, where despite financial setbacks there remains an active focus on building new audiences through educational programs and a repertoire that truly reflects American diversity. Another unique thing about my experience at DTH was seeing people on stage who looked like me, and knowing that young people from many cultures would see someone on stage they could relate to. It was very difficult to be a company member during DTH’s struggle for financial support and eventual closing in 2004, but it heartens me to see the potential for a new company growing. Because it’s not just about being the one black person in the corps, it’s about being given an opportunity to succeed at higher levels and to become a principal dancer. That will truly make a difference in how the African-American community can look at ballet as an art form.

You commented regarding the successes in other fields made by African-Americans and that ballet had enough support from other communities. Do you feel that it's not really necessary to push the issue over greater African-American presence in ballet, since we have so many other successes to be proud of? Would ballet even benefit from African-American presence, and why/why not?

Let’s say this: Ballet would benefit from becoming a comprehensive reflection of American culture. In this economic climate, arts organizations are in need of support on all fronts, and ballet companies will need to diversify if the art form is to survive in this century and beyond. In that sense, ballet would truly benefit from the participation of many diverse cultural communities. African-Americans have a lot to offer the ballet world, but until the doors of diversity are truly open, it will always be a struggle. I would love to see more beautiful black ballerinas on stage, and I believe that the ballet world and the African-American community would benefit from that presence.

Do you believe the problem starts in the African-American community first or the ballet community as a whole needs to take more action?

I believe the problem starts in the ballet world, and the problem is discrimination. Becoming a ballet dancer requires not only a specialized and highly trained physique, but also a tireless work ethic and, at times, a very thick skin. Dance is a visual art form; outward appearances are scrutinized to the smallest detail, so it’s no surprise that skin color comes into play. All dancers of color that I’ve met have stories of encountering the sometimes blatant cultural insensitivity that has become ingrained the fabric of ballet. The tradition of classicism in ballet can still make room for cultural diversity and the acceptance of new visions and ideals; this is how an art form evolves to remain relevant and important in the world at large. This is what needs to change in order to revolutionize the face of ballet and make new precedents for dancers of color in America.

Mr. Griffin made it clear to me that this is of course his opinion, developed from his personal experience in the ballet world. While we may only have are our own unique experiences in the end, my hope is that we can use our unique experiences and perspectives to improve the current and future prospects of young dancers.

Following my interview with Mr. Griffin, he introduced the topic of mixed heritage dancers and requested an opportunity to speak more on the subject.  Here Mr. Griffin has opened up about some of the challenges he has confronted, introduces us to his organization, as well as his thoughts on where ballet needs to head in the future.

In June 2001, I left my home in San Francisco for a new life in New York with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I didn’t know what to expect, and I certainly got more than I had bargained for. I finally found myself around people I could relate to, and this is how I realized my significance as a mixed heritage ballet dancer. I had grown up in the San Francisco Ballet School from the age of eight and danced with the professional company for seven years when I realized I had hit the glass ceiling. I could have spent my whole career there and never made it past the corps de ballet. At DTH I saw my potential reflected in the people around me, whereas at SFB there was always somebody with a gold medal and a luscious head of hair to complement the leading roles. I had been restricted by my own success as the “hometown outreach boy” in San Francisco, and at DTH I had a new opportunity for my talents to shine. And they did! Before DTH, I never would have imagined being able to perform leading roles on opening night at Lincoln Center State Theater. For three short years I was truly a principal dancer in my own right; I grew most artistically in those three years because I could see the success of other dancers of color around me. There was something about being around other mixed-heritage dancers that took away the pressure of “tokenism” and allowed me to relax enough to open up and grow as an artist. I had finally found a place to share the experience of being a mixed heritage ballet dancer with others like me.
Arthur Mitchell taught me the importance of having a cause behind my dancing, and that we represent something greater than ourselves. I’ve taken that and applied it to my mission of spreading mixed-heritage awareness in my home community. For the past ten years or so, I have partnered with my best friend, Nathalie-Andree Muzac, to create Living Bridges, an effort dedicated to mixed-heritage awareness education. We assert that people of mixed heritage are not “halves” but wholes. We must allow ourselves to feel wholly who we are, to acknowledge every cultural aspect of our heritage and ancestry as a complete part of our being. For me, that means owning both my father’s African roots and my mother’s Jewish traditions. I’m not half-black, half-Jewish, I’m fully both. Often, people of mixed heritage feel forced to choose or trapped in between, never feeling like they fit in with any culture. In some cultures, being mixed can diminish status and devalue an individual’s cultural rights. We are teaching empowerment through lectures, classes, and dance presentations to show the cultural richness of being mixed heritage and to encourage others to become living bridges in their own communities. It’s this cultural richness that needs to be incorporated into ballet as a classical art form in the modern era.

I encourage you to read about his organization, Living Bridges, at Http://

Despite our varying backgrounds, many of us can identify with the feeling of being an outsider, and understand that feelings of marginalization or tokenism is unhealthy in any professional environment. Diverse and inclusive environments provide space for individuals to grow, flourish and share their unique identity with the world.

I want to thank Mr. Griffin for his generosity in willing to participate and open up about such a personal and sensitive topic. I believe such honesty and openness is not only cathartic, but builds bridges of understanding by making us realize how truly connected we are to one another.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer is here!

 Summer is here and so too is the mood of leisure and relaxation. For most dancers this is the time to search for new jobs, going on tour to new and exciting places, or getting a much needed respite from a demanding season. For my part, I will be taking the next several weeks to enjoy my family and friends while working on some personal projects. I am also interested in expanding the format of my blog and would love to hear your insights. 

This blog was inspired by the numerous dancers who have contacted me over the years seeking advice and mentorship. I wanted to provide a useful outlet to share information and common experiences, as well as give a piece of myself back to the art community that has given me so much. Initially, I wanted to help by sharing my experiences, but soon realized that I feel a deeper involvement when I hear about your journeys and respond to your questions.  I am considering adding a interactive element to my blog, where readers can share questions, concerns, grips or personal experiences. I have discovered that many artists that email me or post to this blog have similar areas of concern and interest. Many feel isolated and alone. I feel a more community based dialogue can help eliminate unnecessary feelings of isolation, as well as inspire. There are so many wonderful, yet unheard stories, so many moments of inspiration, triumph  and accomplishment—these victories, great and small, should be celebrated and shared.

My vision for this blog is to serve as catalyst for frank, honest and respectful dialogue, where our voices can be heard and our issues and concerns shared. I want artists to have a place to both celebrate their craft and challenge it when necessary. Nothing is off limits. I want to hear your stories, which are therapeutic not only to me,  but I hope to you and others as well.

Please feel free to write to this blog or leave a message on The Black Swan Diaries Faceook page. You may remain anonymous upon your request.

Thank you all for your support throughout the year. I am looking forward to hearing your input and sharing your insights. Have a great summer everyone!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Where's My Spotlight?

 It’s never a good feeling when a dancer is not selected for a desired role on casting day. I have seen many disenchanted young dancers carry this disappointment into the next performance. However, I often remind them that the joys of performing are not confined to soloist and principal roles. The love of this wonderful art should not end when the spotlight leaves you.

Some of my fondest performances were less intense ballets as a member of the corps.The pressure of a solo performance, or more intense role, was removed and I was free to become a part of an uninhibited and collective experience.  I sometimes used less spotlighted roles to experiment with hair, make-up, varied technical approaches and even experimenting with a new pointe shoe. In each role I would also search for moments of inspiration that would allow me to get lost in the composition and choreography so that I could make the performance my own. My love of dancing was not pegged to the amount of attention I received. Although, I am keenly aware of dancers desire to feel rewarded and appreciated by being cast in premier roles. Casting often seems like a vindication of our efforts. However, we should not let disappointment rob us of the joy that comes with being totally connected with our passion.  The focus should be on how we perform, not what we perform—we should seek to immerse ourselves in every role, and in so doing, make it indelibly our own. 

I, like many young dancers, would have given anything to perform certain ballets, and I have certainly had my share of casting upsets-the occasional ballet dream became more frequent and vivid during these times. However, I can look back on all my performances and say I made the most of each one, whether a proud soloist or free-spirited member of the corps. I didn’t let casting steal my joy of performing—and neither should you. After all, you never know who may be watching.

Stay inspired!