Black Swan: Local ballet scene welcomes diverse dancers
By Crystal Welch
An art form started in the Italian courts and revolutionized by the French and the Russians, ballet is the most classic form of dance and the root of modern dance.
Historically, pale faces have filled the world of ballet. In fact, it was not uncommon for ballerinas to powder themselves to add to the look.
“Classical ballet celebrates pale princesses and fair swans. It’s a world where dancers cake their limbs in white powder, and where performers with darker skin don’t always feel welcome,” wrote Olivia Goldhill and Sarah Marsh in a September 2012 piece for the UK Guardian titled “Where are all the black ballet dancers?”
But don’t tell any of this to 12-year-old Nokomis Marr, a black dancer who does feel welcomed at the ballet barre.
The young dancer began studying ballet at age 5 with New Ballet Ensemble and School in Cooper-Young.
Nokomis’ elementary school principal told her mother, Dawn Marr, that she thought it would be a good idea to enroll Nokomis in the scholarship-based program. Marr says she jumped at the chance.
“My personal feeling was that every child wants to be a ballerina,” Marr said. “Every child wants to wear a tutu. When I mentioned it to people, a lot of people kept saying ‘A ballerina? Girl, there aren’t any black ballerinas.’ That made me want to do it even more.”
Despite the triumph of black ballet performers in America, such as Misty Copeland, the revered first black soloist in 20 years at the American Ballet Theatre, the homogeneous face of ballerinas is one that continues to be at the front of the dance.
Its roots in the European courts have contributed heavily to the art’s position as a dance for the elite. Historically, this realm of European elite never included black people, and the world of ballet is no exception.
However, as the 20th century progressed, dance companies welcomed more black performers. Overcoming the art’s beginnings and racism throughout the world, and especially in America, the black ballerina continues to make progress in the world of tutus and barres.
“They are bringing in more black people also to do it,” Nokomis said. “So, I can feel comfortable without being the only black person.”
Katie Smythe, CEO and artistic director of New Ballet, understood the racial exclusivity in ballet and wanted to create a company that offered an environment that was welcoming to people across racial, social and economic lines.
Smythe worked with leaders in the local African-American community when formulating the plan for the school.
“What makes our organization different is that we have a very intentional focus on diversity — everyone getting to know each other across social and economic lines,” Smythe said. “It’s more of a social justice and economic issue. In Memphis, where poverty is overwhelmingly high in the African-American community, we have to provide access and make it possible for people to decide if it’s something they want to do.”
Despite the changes in ballet, many African-American families still associate ballet with its exclusive beginnings, and it is often given the label of being for “others.”
New Ballet is working to change that. Roughly 40 percent of the students at New Ballet are African-American with the remaining 60 percent being mostly white with some Asian and Hispanic students.
“Almost all companies are either all African-American or all white,” Smythe said. “Even in New York City, there are very few that are almost equal. That’s what makes New Ballet different. Everyone feels comfortable here even if they have to step out of their comfort zones. It happened, because we set out to do this.”
As the company prepared for its annual performance of “Spring Loaded,” held at Playhouse on the Square April 12-14, Nokomis practiced five days a week with breaks on Friday and Sunday.
“I do feel tired sometimes, but I like to go because it keeps me healthy,” Nokomis said. “It expresses my feelings and I can do whatever I want and have fun.”
Smythe sings high praises of the progress Nokomis has made over the years.
“She is lovely. She has all of the ingredients to be a ballerina,” Smythe said. “She’s beautiful. She’s a beautiful young lady. She carries herself like a dancer-very graceful and poised.”
Smythe is confident that the increasing diversity in ballet has and will continue to advance the art.
“I believe that when our dancers are diverse, our audience is diverse,” Smythe said. “It increases community and society enormously. The art of ballet may owe its survival to integration. You can’t continue with the same for one population without suffering stagnation and eventually dying. There is an increasingly global, multicultural society. Ballet has to wake up and embrace that or it will die.”
Marr hopes that more African-American parents will see the benefits of putting their children in ballet.
“They’re so used to what’s around in the neighborhood. Try the dances you see on TV— Google it, pull it up. It may be offered right by you and you don’t know it.”
Now, a sixth-grade middle school honor student, Nokomis has just begun training with pointe shoes — the ballet shoe that enables her to perform pointe work on her toes. She is hopeful that she may be able to continue dancing into adulthood.
Diverse companies like New Ballet have helped to make that goal a greater possibility.
“[Diversity] deepens the humanity,” Smythe said.” It opens it up to more possibility so that it can grow. If things don’t grow, they die.”