Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a dream of becoming a ballerina. She put on living room performances for her family in between rehearsing and performing three to four times per week and nothing pleased her more than to express herself through dance. Then that little girl grew up. In addition to realizing her flat feet and crooked back did not make her an ideal candidate for a professional ballerina, she noticed the ballerinas who had “made it” didn’t really look like her. And like most little girls who dream of becoming a ballerina, she eventually went on to find another dream to pursue.
My story is not much different from many little girls whose dance careers start at three or four when their parents enroll them in dance school to teach them how to be graceful or get them to socialize and be outgoing or perhaps get them out of their parents’ hair for a few hours a week. The reality is the dance world is tough and most who pursue the art form as a career don’t succeed, and for those who do, there’s often times a short shelf life. One thing that struck me as I attended my alma mater Jones-Haywood Dance School’s 75th anniversary last night was that no matter whether those little ballerinas defy the odds and grow up to become professional ballerinas or they go on to pursue another dream, there are lifelong lessons that stick with them and help them to excel in life well beyond the barre.
As I looked around the dance studio that seemed so much smaller now as an adult, all the memories that have shaped me into the woman I am today suddenly came rushing back to me. I focused in on my spot at the barre where I remember Ms. Jones tapping her cane at me telling me to “pointe those toes and stand up straight”! I remembered the place where I fell to the ground, breaking my wrist after slipping on those glistening hardwood floors while trying to master a tap routine. I can still hear Ms. Jones say “get up, you’re ok”! My most vivid memory took me to Ms. Fortune-Green studying my back and telling me I should go see a doctor because she believed I had scoliosis. [Side note: Though I was prescribed to wear a back brace for four years, which I absolutely hated, that early discovery allowed me to escape back surgery.] It was in those moments I learned about and developed grace, endurance, poise, self-confidence, persistence, discipline, tenacity, an overcoming spirit, and most of all, the ability to smile through pain.
I applaud and honor the women I “grew up with” in the dance world like Brandye Lee, Karen Niceley, Dionne Figgins and the late Tiffany Glenn who were all able to make a living out of their passion of dance. And I would be remiss if I did not offer a special word of praise to Misty Copeland who kindly accepted the invitation to be a special guest last night. She offered humble words of gratitude for being honored by Jones-Haywood for her outstanding achievement of becoming the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, one of the three leading classical ballet companies in the United States. That is huge! Ever since reading her book Life in Motion, I’ve been mesmerized by her and her story and it was an honor to be in her presence.
I also want to applaud the countless other women you may never hear of who’ve gone on to pursue other dreams but have utilized the skills, disciplines and lessons learned in dance schools all around the world to propel them forward in their respective professions. I’m grateful to be one of them.