Making a Place in the Dance World
Dana Nichols '14 writes about her journey from childhood ballet student to Haverford College student to professional dancer and writer of a recent piece in "Dance Magazine" about blackface in ballet.
Every time I tell someone that I am a professional dancer, I’m shocked by my own words. I spent my first three years at Haverford talking myself out of it. It’s going to be too hard. I don’t have what it takes. I won’t make any money. People will think I wasted my education. It’s too late.
But by my senior year, I was learning to listen to my desires, despite all the “what ifs.” I had to start making courageous decisions—even if it meant failure. Finally, I said something out loud that I had never before been able to say: “I want to be a dancer.”
I had studied ballet very seriously as a child, six days a week, but I never saw myself as a ballet dancer. The girls I trained with were religious about it. They obsessively practiced and studied videos of their favorite ballerinas. I did not obsess. For me ballet was a discipline—an act of mastery—but mostly it was a way of achieving bodily freedom. I just wanted to float and leap across the floor.
When I entered high school, the logistics of my ballet training schedule became too difficult. My school was 20 miles from my home, and going to dance classes every night meant my mom and I spent hours in the car, often parked in rush hour Los Angeles traffic. Something had to give. I needed to prepare for college, so I ramped down my ballet training.
At the same time, I was falling in love with the freedom of contemporary dance, and I began spending more time with my modern dance and lyrical jazz teachers.
As a teenager, I had changed in so many ways. I was a Black girl growing up in segregated Los Angeles, coming into my racial awakening. I was hungry to learn about the artistic contributions of my people. Ballet had my heart, but I felt other callings. Around the time my dance peers were beginning to commit to conservatory programs and full-time pre-professional tracks in ballet around the world, I was immersing myself in issues of diversity and social justice. Though I was blessed to have an older cousin as a dance role model and a few black peers, in those 12 years I had spent every single part of my life in predominantly white institutions, and it began to weigh on me.
In my junior year of high school, I won a scholarship to the summer program at Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). It would be my first experience in a Black ballet company, and winning that scholarship was a light in the dark. However, three months before I was due to start training, I sustained hairline fracture in my foot. Though I was cleared to go, I struggled with my foot through the entire program. And when one of the rehearsal directors at DTH pulled me aside to say I should consider coming there to train full-time in the pre-professional track, I didn’t even take a minute to think about it. I knew: I had to go to college. And just like that I ruled it out.
Applying to Haverford College was a shot in the dark. My guidance counselor told me that I would not be able to go to the kind of school my parents went to (small, liberal arts, and prestigious), most likely because of my test scores. Fortunately, I did not listen to her.
While I have often wondered how much further along I would be if I had not missed those critical years dancing professionally, I would not trade my education for anything. I got to write poetry and short stories, and to immerse myself in African American, African, and Caribbean literature and ideas. I experimented with dance in the multipurpose room at Haverford and in Pembroke at Bryn Mawr, searching for my own voice in movement. It was creative freedom!
After college, committed to being a dancer, I played catch-up for three years in the second company of the Philadelphia Dance Company, known as Philadanco, and then began performing with the first company, which had been created in the 1970s to give Black dancers opportunities.
Now the fruits of my experiences are slowly revealing themselves as useful. I was recently given an opportunity to think about my dance life retrospectively in an article I wrote for Dance Magazine about the ballet world’s controversial use of blackface. I got to write critically about ballet and race. It was a moment in my life where everything seemed to come together.
In December of last year, Misty Copeland, the most famous ballerina in America, took the ballet world by storm when she reposted on Instagram a picture of two Russian girls at the Bolshoi Ballet dressed in blackface costume, captioning it: “And this is the reality of the ballet world . . . ” The ballet in question, La Bayadère, depicts South Asians as they were imagined by 19th-century French, Russian, and Georgian men.
I saw Copeland’s Instagram post during a Philadanco rehearsal break, and froze in my seat. I quickly scrolled through the comments, from history lessons on blackface, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happened in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for putting these young girls in the line of fire for what was ultimately the Bolshoi’s costuming choice. Russians staunchly defended their right to use blackface, saying it is part of their art and cultural practices, and many ridiculed Copeland, who is African American, and Black Americans for being sensitive about something that carries no historical baggage in their country.
My heart was pounding because I was looking at a picture that could have been me. In 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed in blackface to perform in another Russian ballet company’s production of the same ballet. (When ballet companies tour, they can’t bring minors with them, so they find young dancers locally to fill roles in their ballets.) During dress rehearsal I found out we were to wear blackface for the performance. The experience was jarring, but I compartmentalized it away.
Until my aforementioned teenage racial awakening, it did not dawn on me that I had played a primitive Indian caricature. I lived in ignorance, accepting the discomforts in exchange for access to the art form I loved. But looking back, I believe this is when the wall in my mind that separated ballet from the real world first began to crumble.
It was not just that I was not cut out for ballet, it was also that the ballet world made no room for me. Yes, there was Dance Theatre of Harlem, but when I was there they were still suffering from a setback that had reduced the full company down to an ensemble. Growing up, Misty Copeland was the only Black ballerina I ever saw make it, and the fact is that even she is just now getting the recognition she deserves.
After seeing Copeland’s post, I went home that night to reread the account of my experience I had written two years earlier for a grant application to set a ballet on people of color. That grant was denied, but feeling vindicated, I began to rewrite the story. The representation of people of color in the ballet world needs more attention.
Without my combination of experiences—including my liberal arts education—I would not have been able to write the Dance Magazine article. I would not have had the confidence to weigh in—to convey my own personal experience, and then to say more. It turns out my steps away from ballet allowed me to see it with clarity and contribute to it once more.