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

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 www.fotoimpressions.com


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 aeshaash.com. 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. 

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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.

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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
www.fotoimpressions.com


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
www.fotoimpressions.com
 

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:


Question:

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?

Answer:
 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.

Question:

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

Answer:


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.

Question:

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

Answer:

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.

Question:

How has that affected you as a dancer?

Answer:

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.

Question:

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

Answer:

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://ikolo.net/ikolo.net/Home.html

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!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

BALLET: A Love Affair


From the moment I laid eyes on a pointe shoe, my curiosity took hold of me and I just knew that I had to dig deeper into this world of ballet and discover its majesty.

From tutus to tiaras, there are so many things about the imagery and majesty of ballet that captured my young adolescent heart. However, as I matured I started falling in love with the challenges that ballet posed. I found pleasure in mastering variations, pointe work and the complexities of partnering. Ballet at once occupied a space of great effort and magic. Ballet is where my passion met my inherent drive to push and perfect. The pressure to maintain grace, elegance and discipline before discerning audiences became not only palatable, but a joy! I have never been comfortable being the center of attention. Yet, when I performed it was as if all onlookers had disappeared. It was through this splendid isolation that I was able to bear my soul with such honesty and sincerity. Even preparation rituals were sensory-filled pleasures, from the stroke of my make-up brush, the mist of hair spray to the splash of a favorite perfume. The headpiece, the earrings and the costume, the race of my heartbeat before the curtain rose, the adrenaline after a successful performance, all seemed to nourish some mystic part of my being. This world seemed uniquely my own, and was a part of a fantasy I could indulge in night after night. A true love addiction.

Ballet taught me so much about myself and given expression to a person I never knew existed. It was because of ballet that I learned how strong and resilient I truly am. I learned that there is more than one way to achieve a desired result and what works for one may not work for another. I learned that beauty comes in many shapes and colors, that life is full of contradictions- sometimes you need to dig down to lift yourself up.  Finally, ballet has allowed me to experience my dreams in living color.

The magic of ballet starts well before the curtain raises and I am so honored to say that I have experienced every moment of it.



Wednesday, June 15, 2011

That Little Green-Eyed Monster

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Many of us have dreams of a better life and wonder how things might have been had we always walked on the sunnier side of the street. I grew up in a working class, urban neighborhood, and always envied the suburban kids who seemed to have very plum lives. As a dancer, I wished I had the natural gifts of some of my counterparts who performed so effortlessly, as if they were simply born to dance. However, with maturity I have learned to embrace my own unique journey as one that instilled hard work, perseverance and appreciation for all of life’s gifts. I also learned to use other’s success as inspiration, instead of a source of envy. I use the gifts I admire in others to motivate myself to push harder and dream bigger. Through the process of humbling myself, allowing others to inspire me, I learned to try. Through trying I learned to fail, and through failure I was able to inspire many.

Ballet was not innate and did not come naturally to me. Becoming a ballerina took a willingness to humbly place myself amongst superior talent with a student’s mind and a heart determined to succeed. I no longer envy my neighbor’s gifts, I chose to learn and be inspired by them. Even the unobtainable can serve as inspiration!

With a positive attitude, the willingness to embrace inspiration around us, and the faith to try—we can obtain our dreams.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dear Aspiring Artist,

Throughout my career, I refused to allow the obstacles of fear or rejection to prevent me from obtaining my goals. Through belief in myself, support of loved ones and sheer force of will, I was able to leave my modest, working class home and perform in some of the world’s great halls and theatres. I have accomplished things in my short life that have been long unobtainable for so many. I am truly blessed and grateful to all those who have given me support and challenged me to be greater than even my own expectations.  That encouragement and inspiration fueled me, and I in turn would like to encourage young people struggling to realize their dreams to never give up hope! I am proud of my modest beginnings, strengthened by the hills and valleys I’ve walked throughout my career, and encouraged by my victory over adversity. You never know when your opportunity will present itself—so don’t give up on yourself or your passions!  Keeping believing in yourself and your reward will come by way of victory, or perhaps just the simple satisfaction that you invested your all, tried your best, and never gave up on yourself!

With love,
Aesha Ash

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

FROM PRINCESS TO DIVA

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As a young girl,  who I choose to look up to was definitely affected by the morals and values my parents put into place at a young age.  I wonder now, as I see it becoming the norm that women exploit themselves, from magazines to videos, who are the role models for young women and girls today.  My childhood “idols” were strongly influenced by the values instilled by my parents. However, with women’s self-exploitation prevalent throughout popular culture, from videos to magazines, I wonder who young women are looking up to today, and what cues are they receiving from their heroes.

I recall offering to teach ballet at a community center some time ago. I worked with only a small group of children, but I was struck by the lack of interest many of them had with ballet. They were completely aloof regarding all things classical--it seemed only my pointe shoes could grab their attention. However, my class was more than just ballet instruction, I wanted to impart the lesson that ballet could teach them how to comport themselves with dignity and grace through its discipline, impeccable form and decorum. I wanted to show them that they did not have to be overly sexualized to be beautiful.This was the lesson my mother taught me, which was reinforced through ballet.  After an evening of implementing this lesson in my small class, I was heartbroken to see these young ladies, not old enough to drive, emulating the lewd and suggestive dances of video vixens while waiting for their rides home. Unfortunately, this behavior is commonplace, and endorsed by the silence of adults. I left the program feeling hopeless and unproductive—besides, I had only a couple of days to work with them, while the destructive lyrics and images pumped from their radios, televisions and computers worked on them everyday.  How could lessons regarding dignity, discipline and grace compete with a 24 hour cycle of glamorized exploitation set to enticing baselines and special effects?

As I see more and more young women emulating what they see represented in the media, I often wonder what happened to admiring women of substance. Why is it acceptable for many of our young women to behave like divas and dress like sex objects? We should stand as a community of parents, neighbors and people of good conscience to resist this wave of vulgarity pawning itself off as entertainment.  We should stop teaching young women through our silence and indifference that it’s acceptable to exploit your beauty and be seen as a sexual object. Our daughters, sisters and nieces are more than “eye candy” or half-naked video props, they are princesses who should understand their value and worth.

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I look forward to having more opportunity to offer the benefits of my classical training to more and more young women and girls. I do believe that it is possible to capture their attention and win their appreciation. It will definitely take a little more work and creativity to undo their media induced trance, but it can be done!

Friday, May 27, 2011

That Four Letter Word

D  .  I  .  E  .  T


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Like many other dancers, I will never forget the first time I was told to lose weight. My mother pulling me to the side after an audition only to whisper that horrible phrase,"you need to lose weight." I was mortified. After all, I was one of those kids who could eat everything in sight and never gain an ounce. I guess that only lasted so long. Not coming from a family of dancers, or a culture in which a super thin silhouette is admired, the concept of diet was not in my vocabulary. I had no idea where to begin.

Since that dreadful day, I read every book on diet and nutrition I could get my hands on and experimented with every diet known to man. I remember my parents’ frustration during meal times. The foods I once loved I now rejected. The pancakes in the morning smothered in syrup or eggs and bacon atop a homemade buttermilk biscuit that use to have me jolting out of bed on a normal day, were no longer calling me to the morning table.  My father seemed the most clueless of all when it came to diet, and as a skinny  6'3" southern boy who ate everything in sight, this came as no surprise. Oh the sweet naivete of my father who at one time offered me a cup of water and double checked the nutrition facts to reassure me there were no calories.  I recall even trying to survive a whole day on a single apple, only to scarf down a days worth of Chinese delivery by evening. Not a healthy practice by anyone’s standards I assure you! Throughout my career, there continued to be a series of ups and downs and changes with every new fad. Food soon became my nightmare and my silhouette’s worst enemy.

As an adult with  a more mature pallet, I have learned a lot about nutrition since my days of dancing in NY. The diet I have adopted now is not only healthy but  effortless. No more counting calories and changing fads. What I have learned from my dear European friends is that food is meant to be enjoyed. It is not a science project nor solely a source of fuel.  Every moment is a sensory indulging experience, from the preparation to the plate. Yes, food in my home was always enjoyed and the preparation a pleasurable bonding experience between my mother and I, but there is a totally different level of enjoyment when you know where your food comes from, the history behind the dishes and the cultural traditions in the preparation. It is almost a religious experience. I have learned, when you take the time to enjoy  really good food, there is no need to over indulge. One morsel of some of the finest chocolates in Switzerland would leave heavenly flavors swirling around my palate an entire 20 minute bus ride home. Ahhh...the memories.

 
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 I have since tried to bring my new found love of good food home with me and share this knowledge with those I love. As many may know, getting good quality food in this country certainly comes at a price. You will not find many organic supermarkets  near most inner cities in the US, and even if they did exist many households couldn't afford the price. Thankfully, there are organizations popping up around the country that have recognized this issue and are making efforts to address it. People such as Will Allen of Growing Power, Inc whose organization develops community food systems, "that help people grow, process, market and distribute food in a sustainable manner," as stated on the website growingpower.org  Please take a moment and  learn more about what this wonderful organization is doing.

Dieting has never been an enjoyable experience, but developing healthy habits is certainly rewarding and satisfying. Eating healthy doesn't mean partaking in lifeless, tasteless meals, it’s simply a matter of investing the time to find what you like and making healthier meal choices. However, it should also be about creating access to healthier options for everyone to enjoy. I look forward to the day when good, healthy and sustainable food is made available to each and every family, irrespective of location or income.

So as I throw away the scale and  bid adieu to my flavorless days of rice cakes and cottage cheese, I embrace with open arms my new colorful and flavor filled world of delicious and healthy food.
Buon Appetito!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

With Gratitude

Photo by Paul Van Hoy II
Each week I try to use this forum to share my struggles and triumphs in an effort to inspire young dancers who have felt marginalized and voiceless. Many dancers, particularly those of color, fight an internal battle over self image, self worth and their place in the art they love so much. They bear their struggles with a smile, a beautifully painted face, and flawless performances—but there often lays deep reservoirs of pain and reservation just beneath the wonderful surface. I want to encourage these dancers to keep on fighting, believing in themselves, and making beautiful art. I want to say never be discouraged, and never allow the whispers of self-doubt or unkind words of those around you to destroy the spirit that makes you dance. There is a place for you, and through faith, resolve and encouragement, you will become the beautiful swan you aspire to be!

Photo by Paul Van Hoy II


It was important for me to take the time and say just how grateful I am to all the individuals who inspired me throughout my career. These individuals gave me encouragement when I felt different, insecure, out of my element and far away from home. I thank the friends and confidants for the patience, love and emotional support they loyally provided. I thank the strangers who filled my inbox with messages of admiration, as well as those who stopped me on the street to exchange a kind word. I thank the children who filled my heart with gratitude as they lined up after performances to request pointe shoes, and my family for constant support and grounding. And despite the tears and hardships, I thank ballet, which opened up an otherwise unachievable world and gave me a form of expression that leaps from my very soul, and brings joy to those with whom I am fortunate enough to share my passion.

Photo by Paul Van Hoy II


It is my honest hope that the candid manner in which I share so many of my pains and joys will inspire others to make the wonderful art of ballet more inclusive and compassionate, so that there will be more beautiful swans of every color!

Photo by Paul Van Hoy II
 The Cost of Pursuing a Dream cont...

Last week I wrote a post regarding the difficulties that many lower income families have in pursuing ballet as an option for their youngsters. I spoke of City of Angels Ballet, whose director Mario Nugara has not only recognized this problem, but has made a personal effort to resolve this issue in his home of Los Angeles. Recently I was sent this video by Joey Rodgers, founder and Artistic Director of Dancing in the Streets, Arizona. Mr. Rodgers is yet another individual working towards resolving the issue that many face when it comes to the financial difficulties in involving a child in ballet.



I am so thankful to these individuals who are making such a huge impact in the lives of these children, their families and communities. If you know of any other organizations such as these, please send them my way! The more we know about efforts such as these being made, the more opportunity there is for inspiring another individual to maybe make a small effort of their own.

Ballet is a glorious and powerful outlet and should be made available to all who are captivated by its majesty.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Cost Of Pursuing A Dream

Photo Paul D. Van Hoy II
www.fotoimpressions.com

Though previous efforts have been made to expose inner city youths to ballet, I’ve often wondered what happens after they fall in love. How can these bright eyed children from difficult backgrounds possibly afford the costs associated with this patrician art form. The weekly purchase of point shoes alone stresses even middle class families finance.

As a child, I scarcely understood the sacrifice my family made so that I can pursue a ballet career. Classes, shoes and attire not only meant tremendous financial commitment from my parents lower middle class budget, but from my siblings as well, who would sometimes have to forego certain ambitions due to the family’s strained resources. Despite the burden a simple costume fee placed on my family’s finances, I still managed to attend ballet classes five to six times per week, purchases of dozens of pointe shoes a year along with a drawer full of tights and leotards. Reflecting on all the costs, it’s no wonder why ballet is rarely pursued by the underprivileged. Without support from scholarships, the tireless efforts of my parents to find resources for me and the sacrifice of my siblings, I would have never been able to pursue my passion. It is truly heartbreaking to think that there is some little girl out there dancing in her living room, dreaming of tutus and tiaras, who may never get the opportunity to pursue her dreams because she lacks the means.

While discussing this difficult and very personal issue with a friend, I was referred to a website for the City of Angels Ballet, Los Angeles, which has the mission of helping underprivileged children actually pursue their dreams of becoming ballet dancers. The website describes the Academy and its mission as follows:

Since it's inception in 1993, the City of Angels Ballet has offered hope, inspiration and opportunity, in the form of classical ballet training, to hundreds of talented children from some of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. At this not-for-profit, selective ballet academy, boys and girls, aged 8 to 18 receive formal instruction and dancewear at no cost to their families. Our dancers reflect the diverse ethnic mix that makes up this city, and most qualify for the Federal Free lunch program at their public schools.

Founder and Artistic Director, Mario Nugara has a lovely quote on the website:

"My dream was to create a ballet company and academy reflective of our wonderul diverse city that utilizes the untapped talent existing in every community in Los Angeles. The City of Angels Ballet is well on its way to making this dream come true!"

Underprivileged communities are filled with untapped talent. As a child I remember attending small talent contests in my neighborhood and being blown away at some of the talent that would surface. I was too young to understand just how fortunate and blessed I was to be given an opportunity to explore my talent by my parents and others who believed and invested in me. Far too many, far too often are not so lucky.

I applaud Mr. Nugara for realizing this need and choosing to take action. What a wonderful gift he is giving to these children and their communities. Through the respect and discipline learned at the academy, students are receiving praises from school teachers and impacts are being felt in their families and communities. Wouldn't it be wonderful if such opportunities could be granted to all underprivileged communities? How many children go down the wrong path because of lack of direction, inspiration or hope. Mr. Nugara is giving these children more than ballet training, he is giving them hope!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten

Photo by Paul Van Hoy II

As the world breathes a sigh of relief over the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and as we remember those who have lost their lives and others who continue to suffer, I am reminded of the weeks that followed September 11th.

I will never forget the sense of collective unity formed through this tragedy. I felt a bond of kinship with perfect strangers as we stood in endless lines to give blood, held hands or sang together in Union Square. Walls and stern looks so commonplace as one weaves through congested New York City sidewalk traffic were replaced by an uncharacteristic quiet, compassion and a desire to comfort those around you. Celebrity gossip and tabloid spectacle had lost its significance. Our focus shifted to family, friends, volunteering, being good neighbors and carpe diem--as we were all abruptly made aware just how short and fragile life is. It wasn't too long after we were encouraged to return back to "normalcy" when suddenly celebrities were back on the scene and we were being feed our daily dose of media junk food. Although I understood the need to lift the spirits of a distraught nation, I wished we could have used that horrible tragedy as an opportunity to shift our collective focus and mentality. I wished "normalcy" wasn't a 24 hour partisan news cycle, gossip columns, fast food, high fashion and cosmetic surgery. I missed the moments when strangers and countrymen stood in solidarity to comfort each other and focus on things that really matter like; our country, our communities, our families, and yes, our very own lives.

To all those who have lost their lives and to those who mourn them, those who bear the scars of tragedy, and to those fighting for freedom, my prayers are with you. We shall never forget!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

You Are Not Alone

Source unkown
 
This week I wanted to post something more lighthearted as a counter balance to the weightier issues discussed each week. However, as I read through viewer responses to past blogs, some sharing moments of adversity and others expressing resignation to the harsher realities of ballet, I realized that recounting an amusing anecdote from my touring days, or discussing how my late blooming love of chocolate formed in Switzerland, would be woefully inadequate. Having so often felt isolated and alone throughout my career, I want this blog to connect people who feel they have no voice, and struggle silently. I want this blog to be a forum to express ideas, challenge outmoded notions, spark
discussion, broaden perspectives and yes, vent!

When I came across the above image online, it resonated with me on a deeply personal level. As a child I would silently stare out my bedroom window wondering if I would ever be the royal, ethereal, angelic ballerina of my dreams, or just another stereotype chasing a pipe dream. In sharing this wonderfully powerful image I want to declare to all young artists, who often feel marginalized and left behind, you are more powerful than you know—you are not alone!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thin is in!...Yeah, we know

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A small post on the website Any Body reads:


Ballet (if you can believe it) is an even sicker industry than fashion. Not only are students and professional dancers constantly suffering from body anxiety and emotional and psychological abuse from their teachers, most ballet dancers also have eating disorders. If you've seen "Black Swan" you've seen how horrible the life of a ballet dancer can be. How can we help them to heal and change the standards of the ballet industry?

I am not sure that we could ever really "change" these standards. However, there is finally an ever so gradual trend developing towards broadening ballet’s perspective. But for many dancers, the damage has already been done.
 
 

My struggle with my body image began as a very young woman and sadly continues to this day. After continuous involvement with a career that puts such emphasis on the body, and the media, from Hollywood to high fashion, perpetuating a "rail thin" aesthetic, it's no wonder so many women and girls find it hard to overcome this struggle. While many friends and colleagues would tell me how great I looked,  I received no such reassurance from my instructors until I began to shed significant weight from already constantly conditioned physique. This lack of approval made me question the sincerity and/or credibility of my supporters. I couldn’t possibly look good without the blessings of my company masters could I? I tried to come to terms with ballet’s rigid expectations, as well as my own high standards. Although,  I wanted desperately to meet the approval of directors and instructors, my own good sense and grounding refused to allow the extreme to become my reality. I would often stall my own progress in the name of rationality. Whenever I would get midway through yet another starvation-like diet, I would then retreat for fear that I was giving into something which I didn't believe in. I created a vicious cycle that caused a lot of frustration throughout my career. I remember trying almost every diet known to man. However, at the end of the day, a button I recall seeing as a child summed these experiences up best: " I have been on a diet for a week and all I lost was seven days!" How many times that expression rang true for me. 

Looking back, I can laugh at all the ridiculous fads I experimented with, but for some dancers, this is no laughing matter. I empathize with those dancers who suffer so much with self-image, especially at very young ages. I know there are more and more efforts being made towards helping younger dancers deal with issues of weight and my prayer is that such efforts will be successful. I must admit I am a bit skeptical. It seems a bit contradictory to expect dancers to reach unhealthy goals in a healthy way. Maybe it is possible...we shall see.

I found this video not only disturbing, but it truly saddens me. Unfortunately, I know of far too many with this same mentality.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Everyone's A Critic

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I always wondered why some dancers are so critical of each other when we are already overwhelmed by critiques, corrections and our own looping internal monologue that speaks to insecurities about appearance and technique. I have often taught classes where I have witnessed dancers laughing at another classmate who was performing an exercise. Perhaps I too have been a culprit of this sort of subtle cruelty. However, as a young dancer, my awareness of others judgments and criticisms made me feel insecure. I never knew what lied behind the smirks, giggles and low whispers. It was easier to hide from an instructor during a difficult exercise, but not the many dancers who surround the studio. Many times I have found myself in awe of another dancer and eager to share my thoughts with the nearest listener. I have also found myself walking away from negative discourse or ignoring a discourteous remark. I grew less tolerant of destructive criticism with maturity. The keen awareness of my own insecurities also made me sensitive and empathetic towards other dancers. When I did infrequently make a negative remark regarding another dancer, I found it was often to cover up my own insecurities. So the question arises: when has bringing another individual down really ever made you feel better? The answer is invariably: Never! No matter the skill level, I have always been a firm believer that you can learn something from everyone, be it footwork, port de bras or just work ethic and determination. It is so much more rewarding to learn from each other than to tear each other down.



Now whenever I have an opportunity to teach younger dancers, I try and make it a point to teach them to be oblivious to the eyes around them. However, applying the cliche: "dance as if no one is watching" is much easier said than done. Some people are able to ignore these watchful eyes quite effortlessly -- oh how I envy them! I think when we teach young dancers the etiquette of the classroom, we should include respecting and supporting fellow dancers as well.  I know of many teachers who are already instilling this important lesson-- I applaud you! 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

HAIR WE GO...AGAIN!



After the response of last weeks post, it occurred to me that there just is not enough exposure to the beauty of our natural tresses. Conceptions about hair are shallow and antiquated. No woman should have to hide one of the wonderful attributes of her unique beauty. Uniformity not only places a heavy tax on diversity, but it can sometimes be really boring!


  I have spoken before regarding the beauty of diversity in its many natural manifestations. Diversity should be reflected in people the same way it is reflected in the wonderment of nature. Mother earth in all its exquisite beauty provides the perfect template and inspiration for diversity not only in art, but throughout our lives.



In ending this post, I wanted to put together images that displayed the elegance and beauty found in well taken care of natural African -American hair. 

Be inspired!

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Inna Modja - singer/songwriter/model

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

HAIR WE GO

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I came across this photo while doing some research on my last post. It was the observation in the paragraph that followed which presented an interesting topic and stirred up some uncomfortable memories from my past. The comment went as follows:

“i find the natural hair charming/interesting, esp because a black ballet dancer would almost certainly have to straighten/pull back her hair, unless the company was alt/up-and-coming/deliberately provocative. but i don’t think i’ve ever seen a picture of a black ballet dancer with a fro. natural hair, yes. fro, no.”




 This comment made me recall several instances where my hair caused me to feel distant and removed from the classical art I had grown to love. There were many ballets where the dancer was meant to wear their hair down, and the image of long flowing locks billowing through the air as the dancers movement graced the stage was a breathtaking image for all who observed. Many of the ballets highlighted hair as the dancers were required to either wear long ponytails or have lengthy hair that draped and flowed during performances. This built in aesthetic posed real challenges to many girls no matter what ethnicity, but an even greater challenge for myself and other dancers of color. Luckily, we all had tricks up their sleeves to overcome these natural challenges. One particular instance during my time at Bejart Ballet will forever stick with me. While choreographing a new piece, Maurice Bejart instructed each dancer to let down their hair to see if he could incorporate that into the piece. He instructed each girl, one by one to take down their hair, and as I stood their watching each girl’s hair fall gracefully down their backs, my insecurity begin crawling its way up my spine. My hair is textured and not prone to falling down straight like what I have seen in many ballets. I believed in protecting my hair by keeping it natural and avoiding harsh and damaging chemical perms and relaxers.  I also enjoyed the versatility that my natural hair provided. However, inside I knew this was not the image he was looking for.  I certainly had never seen any evidence that my hair type was desired as the above comment so pointedly stated. Therefore, when my turn came and I loosened my hair band—my hair puffed out crinkly and curly, not straight down.  Maurice smiled and some dancers chuckled. Luckily, I was a much more mature dancer and was able to brush off such a reaction. I could only image how such insensitivity would have affected me as a younger dancer. However, this episode still bothered me. It never feels good to be laughed at because of who you are. However, although I was offended and disappointed, I was not surprised.


    Recently I found an article from the Afro-Europe International Blog. It mentioned an episode in the Netherlands where a young Dutch girl was excluded from attending a ballet class because her hair was not worn in the required smooth bun. Actions were then taken against the school and hopefully this issue was resolved, but it does leave me torn. I do believe that ballet requires great discipline and that begins in the ballet studio. This involves a strict dress code, fierce work ethic, respectful demeanor and of course requirements on hair. I came from a school that didn't even allow girls to wear bangs. Thanks to the billion dollar hair industry, there are a plethora of options out there for achieving this "classical look." However, what happens to that little girl who may not have any of these options? Should the little girl, with hair too short to pull back in a bun or who’s too young for chemical relaxers be turned away from class? Is it fair to turn away a dancer who fits all the necessary requirements, but whose hair doesn't make the cut? Should a young dancer do whatever it takes achieve the perfect aesthetic? I struggle with my own feelings regarding this issue because there is a part of me that says, "ballet has strict requirements and we need to try our best to adhere to them.”  Strict discipline is what sets ballet apart from many other art forms." At the same time, there is the other part of me which feels that there’s more to art than hair. I feel my identity is being attacked because my hair represents who I am, my roots. Watering down my ethnicity seems to be what is expected of me and that leaves many wounds especially for a young girl just beginning to understand who she is. There is a uniformity that is required in ballet and I assume hair is part of that. Although, a blogger once wrote that I, as an African American dancer, disrupted the uniformity and clean lines of an otherwise all white performance. Should we accept such commentary as the classical standard, or should we challenge it as narrow-mindedness and prejudice?




    In all segments of life, African American women are struggling to fit into a European model. Straightening their hair helps them “fit in” while wearing their hair natural is seen as a provocative statement. Why should choosing to wear your hair naturally be seen as a statement? Recently, Sesame Street's head writer, Joey Mazzarino, was inspired to create a skit to help his daughter, as well as other young Af. Am. girls appreciate their beauty. This inspiration sparked when his daughter displayed a dislike of her own hair after playing with Barbie dolls. The video soon went viral, and even plucked at the heart strings of older African-American women. What consequences do these classical notions of beauty have on all of us?








It’s amazing to think something as little as how I wear my hair became such a big deal.