It’s not every day that we see black ballerinas splashed across the mainstream media. With the exception of the ever-so-amazing Misty Copeland, only a handful of ballerinas, let alone ballerinas of color, are celebrated on a regular basis. In fact, many dance companies across the country include women of color of exceptional accomplishment.
The Memphis-based company Collage Dance Collective may have just set the record straight with this photo of five of its members. From left to right, they are Brandye Lee, Daphne Lee, Kimberley Ho-Tsai, Nikki Taylor, and Luisa Cardoso, all standing tall and en pointe.
“This photo is one of nearly one hundred stunning images of authenticity and excellence captured during the full-day shoot,” Shalishah Franklin, the company’s marketing director, told Yahoo Beauty. “The campaign includes solo shots, couples and doubles, groups, and the entire company. They are all breathtaking, unprecedented, and vital, to demonstrate the often unsung excellence of ballet dancers of color.”
In a recent repost from tajimagazine, a black beauty and culture publication, the photo has already received almost 20,000 likes. The caption reads, “Our favorite type of ballerinas. Spewing #SlayBells effortlessly… #browngirlsdoballet.”
Yahoo Beauty reached out to Franklin for more details about the inspiration for the campaign:
Who came up with the concept for the photo?
“I was watching a rerun of author Cynthia Bond’s interview with Oprah. During that Super Soul Sunday interview, they talked about one of the strongest lines in Bond’s book Ruby: ‘The audacious hope of rooted things.’ That line moved me. I developed a photoshoot concept for the company around those keywords, including audacity, authenticity, hope, strength, unapologetic excellence, and growing where planted. The concept called for nude apparel, which we ordered in white and custom-dyed to match each dancer’s unique skin tone. Each dancer’s hair was styled to celebrate its natural state, and makeup simply highlighted the natural beauty and glow of each company member, consisting of five women and four men. Photos were shot by Andrew J. Breig, and makeup was done by LaLa Shegog.”
How did the ladies feel after taking the photo?
“Every aspect of this photo shoot, from the music to the team members, was curated to celebrate and empower our company members. The images as a result of this deliberately inspirational environment are simply stunning. Brandye Lee, Daphne Lee, Kimberly Ho-Tsai, Nikki Taylor, and Luisa Cardoso felt the responsibility to not only show their artistic excellence, but also honor the original swans of color and empower future swans. They rightfully felt proud and unstoppable.”
How do you feel about the lack of black ballerinas featured in mainstream media?
“We are deeply concerned by the underrepresentation of black ballerinas, not only in mainstream media, but in professional companies and ballet schools worldwide. This pervasive lack of representation within our industry and our media is a continued call to action for our company, to inspire the growth and diversity of ballet through a repertoire of relevant choreography and world-class dancers representative of our community. We are a professional contemporary ballet company and conservatory, training nearly 400 youth annually, based in Memphis. We have seen firsthand how truly beneficial exposure to performing arts professionals who resemble them is for our youth, and we intend to continue to do our part to change the narrative.”
How have the reactions been to the photo posted on Instagram?
“The inspiring dialogue that has been sparked as a result of this New Year’s Day image, featuring African-Americans, French Guianese, and Brazilian women, demonstrates the value of, and desire for, representation in media. Many of the comments are from aspiring ballet dancers, former dancers, and the parents of budding ballet dancers, who have expressed some form of hope and affirmation as a result of this image. This is the ‘audacious hope of rooted things’ from all over the world, hopefully growing with us.”
How do all those reactions make you feel?
“The positive impact, feedback, and sharing of our first image from this campaign have been both humbling and inspiring for our entire company, particularly our co-founders Marcellus Harper, the executive director, and Kevin Thomas, the artistic director. Mr. Thomas, a former ballet dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, pursued his passion for ballet despite being told several times along his journey that people of color did not possess the classical lines to be successful in this industry. The first black ballerina he ever saw perform was Yolanda Jordan, 10 years after he had done his first plié in a ballet studio.
“So the adversity that our co-founders and company members know intimately underlines the importance of this photo. We’re moved to continue realizing our vision: demonstrate that through exposure and training. Collage’s students always believe that the pursuit of a professional career in ballet, or any industry, is within their reach, regardless of their skin tone, gender, or economic background.”
You can take a behind-the scenes-look below at the ballerinas before they created the standout shot. They also had some fun doing the #mannequinchallenge before getting into their final poses.
These ballerinas are truly making their mark, proving not only that black women do participate in ballet, but that they look pretty darn good doing it.