My swollen feet found temporary comfort as they pressed against the cold floor. Here, in the place where I felt most safe, I learned that my race was a hindrance to my dreams. I stood there exhausted, wishing I was in a nightmare, rather than in the midst of a brutal confrontation with reality. There I was, alone with my teacher in a sterile studio after an eight hour day of training. “Nia, you aren’t the typical dancer. Your muscles are bulky, your bust is too big and you can no longer get away with wearing the same shoes and tights as everyone else, you have to dye them.” These words flew out of my teacher’s mouth, each one a striking blow to my stomach. I was 11. I understood at that moment when she said the word “typical.” She spoke about it everyday without uttering the words, but her actions, the roles I received, the criticism and the humiliation defined it. Black.
Dance was always there for me. It unlocked my confidence and sense of self. Before ballet, I was shy, terrified to speak in front of another person, much less dance in front of hundreds. The day I took my first ballet class, this shyness quickly transformed into joy and wonder. Ballet was like magic, and I became a new person when dancing. I knew from that very day that I wanted to become a ballerina and would do everything necessary to accomplish my goal. Being told at age 11 that my race would be a barrier to realizing my dreams left me feeling lost and empty. Ballet went from being my refuge to a source of anxiety as I realized that as a result of my race, my sacrifices would not yield even a marginal return.
As time progressed, the racism and discrimination that I faced in the ballet world became increasingly blatant. One example of this is the fact that the only other Black student in the studio and myself where often put in a separate class than the rest of the dancers in our level and were forced to do ballet combinations learned from a Vaganova YouTube video rather than practicing our competition dances with the other students. When we did not perform as well in our Vaganova exams as our peers who received training and corrections from our teacher rather than a YouTube video, the disparity in our performance was used as another excuse for our teacher to force the narrative that Black dancers are less competent than their non-black counterparts.
My teacher continued to be discriminatory towards students of color when she refused to provide us with any costumes that matched our skin tone. The quite costly costumes provided to us were always made for White people, forcing the Black students in the class to spend countless hours dying costume pieces while we could have been rehearsing, doing schoolwork or catching up on our sleep simply because our studio refused to adjust our custom made dance costumes to match our dark skin tones. While every other dancer was given costumes that blended into their complexions, we were forced to spend great amounts of time and money to alter the costumes that we had already paid a great deal for. In addition, each member of the competition team was required to purchase a leotard in a specific color which our Artistic director referred to as “nude” to be allowed on the team. These leotards were a beige tone and everyone at the studio was required to purchase this leotard in this shade to be a member of the team. This meant that students of color were forced to purchase these costly items and once again spend time and money dying them. As young Black people, we are exposed to racism constantly. Unfortunately, the worst of the pain and racial abuse that we suffered stemmed from the place where we were supposed to feel safest.
In the midst of this confusion, I was gifted the opportunity to meet Misty Copeland, the first black principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. Like Misty, I started ballet later than my peers, was the only dancer of colour in my studio, and had to leave home to continue my training abroad when, at 14, I left my family, school, home, and country to pursue my dreams of becoming a professional ballerina at New York’s prestigious Joffrey Ballet School.
Meeting Misty offered a real life example of a woman who overcame the challenges I faced. In our first meeting, I asked Misty to sign my pointe shoes. As she held them and saw the dye on my hands she spoke about how her method of dying pointe shoes also leaves a similar residue and sparkles when hit by the stage lights causing a distraction to the audience. I wondered how the top professional ballerina in America could be facing the same struggles that I was and not have access to dancewear in her color.
Years later, Misty’s words inspired me to start Révolutionnaire, originally a dancewear company catering to dancers of colour. Creating Révolutionnaire with the knowledge that dancers of colour will no longer have to dye their clothing gave me the necessary motivation to keep dancing even when the “cant’s” outweighed the “cans”. The Révolutionnaire Shop launched with our signature t-shirt line, tights and accessories. Our clothing is inspired by the many diverse dancers made up of beautiful individuals of all colours, sizes and genres of dance. Misty’s mentorship gave me strength to surmount barriers and inspired me to help other dancers conquer their challenges and focus on their love of dance. Now, diverse dancers no longer have to spend extra hours and dollars dyeing their dancewear.
Beyond posture, poise and pointe, ballet has taught me the meaning of discipline and the satisfaction that comes from stretching outside of one’s comfort zone in pursuit of an ideal previously thought to be unattainable.