What A Black Ballerina’s Path To Success Can Teach You About Workplace Diversity

Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers during Third Annual Apollo Theater Fondation, Inc. Spring Benefit at The Apollo Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for XA, The Experimental Agency)
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers during Third Annual Apollo Theater Fondation, Inc. Spring Benefit at The Apollo Theater in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for XA, The Experimental Agency)

In this series, The Huffington Post profiles some of the best ballet dancers in the world, working in some of the rarest and most unusual work environments imaginable, to try to understand how they deal with the same workplace issues that confront the rest of us mere mortals. 

Most of us don’t get literal standing ovations from hundreds of people when we do good work. And most of us don’t have to visit the physical therapist at the beginning and end of every work day. But no matter what sector we’re in, the big questions are the same:

What does it mean to have your body under scrutiny on the job? How does it feel to be asked to represent your entire race in a company meeting? How do you find the right people to mentor and guide you? Read previous installments, about being a great partner, switching career tracks and navigating a workplace romance.

To look at her, you’d swear that Stephanie Rae Williams is in love. She’s dancing with a man, and from the way that she’s glancing at him as she flits around, and the way he gazes up at her as he sweeps her in his arms, you just know that they’re deeply in love. From the way their bodies almost seem to be talking to each other, you suspect they’re desperately in lust, too.

But they’re not. They’re just rehearsing.

It’s Easter Saturday, and while the rest of the city is resting up or preparing their Sunday feasts, Williams and her colleague Da’von Doane, along with half a dozen of their fellow Dance Theatre of Harlem artists, are holed up in a studio at the iconic company’s headquarters on 152nd Street. As exhausted dancers lean against the studio’s brick walls, sweating and drooping from the previous rehearsal, Williams and Doane seem to disappear into their own little world. They’re rehearsing a piece called “When Love,” a pas de deux choreographed by Helen Pickett, which they’ll perform at their City Center engagement in April. The music is by Phillip Glass, with multiple spoken-word pieces laid over the violin and choral singing, and between the angelic voices and the pair’s alternately delicate and sweeping movements, that little world appears transcendently beautiful.

The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 and has since become one of the nation’s finest companies, and one of its most important forces in the slow, crucial, and ongoing fight to carve out a place for African-Americans in the landscape of American ballet. Along with outfits like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, it has long been a crucible for African-American dancers and choreographers, and a testament to how art and artists can blossom, even when they’re starved for resources and denied deserved mainstream prestige. In addition to a performing company, DTH runs a school and a community education and outreach program, a multi-pronged approach to the mission of bringing ballet to people and people to ballet.

That American ballet is overwhelmingly white will not be news to anyone who has observed the rise of Misty Copeland, who became American Ballet Theater’s first black woman principal ballerina just last year. Dance Theatre of Harlem, however, has spent decades demonstrating that there’s no real excuse for that overwhelming whiteness: DTH has had black principal ballerinas since the beginning.

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Source: Black Voices | Chloe Angyal