Last Tuesday, while looking for photos to post on our social media for #TutuTuesday, I came across this little ballerina on a tutu, asking if she was as good as Misty Copeland.
And yes, the six year-old Ava Elyse Johnson is black – just like Misty Copeland. Which, unfortunately, is still rather extraordinary when it comes to ballet dancers. Maybe that’s why it caught my eye – a little girl of color looking up to a great ballerina, also of color. And all that talk of representation (a frequent subject in this blog) started making sense.
I spoke to her mom, Chrysanthé, and she agreed to share with me how Ava fell in love with dancing, and if more black dancers on stage had any influence on her.
“We knew from a very early age that Ava was a natural dancer. She started showing potential as a ballerina and athlete by the age of two. If you spent more than five minutes with her, you’d soon enough find her walking and spinning on her tip toes. Never on her whole foot. Lol. I felt compelled to enroll her in ballet school as soon as she met the age requirement”, Chrysanthé said.
The school choice was very meticulous, as I understood. Her mother said that, since her family already spent much time as the minority in multiple environments, Chrysanthé felt is was important for Ava to develop her artistic skills around children who looked like her or had different ethnic backgrounds.
Therefore Ava was enrolled in Philadanco!, a very diverse school and company – it’s worthwhile checking their website.
Of course parents’ backgrounds also play an important role in their children’s education, and, in Ava’s case, it turned out being a very positive one. Crysanthé mentioned she danced while in high school, even though it wasn’t classical ballet (she was more into Afro-Caribbean rythms). She also mentioned that athetics run in their family, meaning it was a matter of time until Ava was interested in a physical activity.
But parent’s interest in children’s artistic development shouldn’t stop there: it’s vital to present them role models. And it gets a bit more complicated when it comes to representativity.
Children want to relate to their idols. In ballet, specifically, until not very long ago there were no dancers of color in big international companies. Now, with a new generation of stars, as Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, Precious Adams and, more recently, Brazilians Ingrid Silva and Alison Stroming, it’s beginning to change.
“Women like Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, Alison Stroming, Precious Adams and Ingrid Silva are making it easier for us. They are inspiring young ballerinas like my daughter to be who they are even when the world tries to deny them. And they are breaking barriers in a way that makes it difficult for them (and other brown ballerinas) to go unnoticed in mainstream America and in the world of ballet”.
Naturally this is far from enough. There is still racism in companies and schools and disproportion between people of color and whites in ballet is still tremendous. But there’s something good already coming out of it – Ava, for a starter.
Yet, I asked Chrysanthé if there’s anything we can do to speed up the process of diversity in dance.
“I think we have to continue to expose our children to these art forms and support people like Misty Copeland as they make strides to help pave the way. Talk about people like Misty Copeland over dinner, buy and read their books together… Set aside some money to go to a live performance. Whatever you do, make them REAL to your children. We cannot break barriers if we limit ourselves by doing only what society associates with our race or gender. We are capable of so much more and it’s extremely important for our children to see and believe that”.