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

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:


  1. I am so happy to have found this blog. You bring up so many wonderful issues. I feel sad for what might have been for me, for so many other young black female dancers, for so many young black girls from disadvantaged communities. But there is also hope. I teach dance here in Chicago, and have strong ties to the dance community here. If there is anything I can do, please let me know.

    Keesha at

  2. Beautiful blog! The *TRUE* arts are being lost in our Black community and I do believe that the rebirth of the Renaissance can happen in our lifetime - your influence in dance will help set those wheels in motion.

    Peace and Blessings

  3. Why don't you wear flesh colored shoes and tights?? That is the ultimate step as a Brown ballerina. I don't understand. You are fighting for respect but not demonstrating it. Anyway, where was this blog when I was dancing!! If only I had the strength. I wanted to be 'the one' to break the barriers but I lacked the technique, feet, etc to ever go from student to profesisonal.