When I think of my childhood, images of dance classes and singing lessons is all that comes to mind. I remember having the most INCREDIBLE time getting dolled up for a recital and letting my little light shine. I am sure so many of you reading can relate to the thrill of dancing and the sheer fascination that came from finally learning something new! It is of no surprise how delighted I was to come across Brown Girls Do Ballet this summer while surfing Instagram. I loved the pictures of brown girls that looked like me doing something that is such a huge part of my upbringing. Now, the photos are pretty to look at – all of these brown girls across the country dancing, but what is most important, is the meaning and message behind Brown Girls Do Ballet. I invite you to learn ALL about the creator, TaKiyah Wallace in this interview with the hopes that you engage and support her amazing work. Check, check it out! Note: All photos featured in this article (aside for the one to your left) is the work of the talented TaKiyah Wallace.
Tell us about the wonder woman behind Brown Girls Do Ballet? Who are you? What is your life aim? I know we are just going to dive in with the real questions. Since we haven’t met I want to see you through your words.
I am a public school educator of 12 years, and a professional photographer for 4 years. I’ve also been fortunate enough to wear a few other hats: actor, reporter, wife and MOM. I hold a Bachelors Degree from the University of North Texas and a Master’s Degree from Texas Christian University. Of all of the jobs that I’ve had, the most important has been playing boo-boo kisser and Macaroni and Cheese maker to an amazing daughter and now newborn son. My role as mom is what led to the creation of Brown Girls Do Ballet. My #1 aim in life is to leave something for my children. Legacy is my favorite word. I use it every chance I get so that it stays fresh with me. Everything I do is centered around it. What am I leaving for them? What am I leaving to make the better world outside of these 4 walls? What I am leaving to make my children better that they may impact others and make their lives better?
Before you leave this earth, how would you like to be remembered? For what endeavors? I guess, what would you like your legacy to be?
(I guess I should have read this question before answering the last one LOL) First and foremost I think it’s important for me to say that none of what I do or have done is about me. It hasn’t been about me since the day my eyes met my daughter’s. It has been about the fact that it seems unfair to me that our children are growing up in a world that although it has advanced technologically there are still some very damaging unfair disparities that they will be faced with that leaders and teachers over several decades have fought to remedy, so my legacy is not for my name to be remembered as much as it is for your children and children’s children to have doors unhinged for them that may only be cracked open right now. Although the platform that I happen to be working primarily on is ballet, the overall concept could be applied to many genres and careers.
Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? When was the first time you fell in love with photography and knew this was part of your life’s work?
At the age of 16 my love of photography was awakened. I would have my mom take me to the now defunct Eckerd Pharmacy and buy packs of disposable cameras. You know the ones with actual film that would click when you scrolled to the next shot? I had several photo boxes full of family and school events. I ALWAYS had a camera with me. I upgraded to my first digital point-and shoot camera after my first job out of college. I paid a whopping $200 bucks and thought I was really doing “something”. A co-worker at the time had a camera much more advanced than mine and would allow me to shoot work events with it. After self-teaching myself long enough I enrolled in a college level photography course. The week before class was to begin my husband bought me my first pro-camera and the rest is history. What was a hobby became more when someone else was willing to pay me to do it. I am a photographer because I believe in the word LEGACY. Being a photographer allows me to build mine and capture yours.”
So tell me, how was Brown Girls Do Ballet born? When did you first realize the need for Brown Girls Do Ballet?
I have a daughter. She’s sweet. She’s brown. She does ballet. She loves it. Imagine a 4 year old coming home from class and practicing like it’s a job! Before we enrolled in her current ballet program I looked all over the city for a dance program that fit our families schedule and budget. A commonality found on most of the dance school websites I happened upon was that there were no babies that looked like mine. She didn’t look like she’d “fit”. I didn’t know much about ballet in general but I KNEW that this wasn’t a fluke. If you use Google images and search “ballet” or “ballet dancer” you’re presented with a number of images of ballet dancers but none of them looked like her. What does that say to my daughter who now loves ballet should she choose to pursue it lifelong with the hopes of being professional one day? What does a ballet dancer look like? Where’s the diversity? Little did I know, this project would become so much more.
Brown Girls Do Ballet initial goal was set as a personal photo project for me, focused on highlighting underrepresented populations of girls in ballet programs in Dallas, Austin, and Houston. The goal was to find 12 girls and maybe produce a book. After throwing the casting notice up on Facebook something insane happened! The notice was shared all over the country and my inbox became flooded within hours. After seeing the response and getting numerous inquiries from other cities to bring the project there, I gathered a small team of amazing women and decided we HAD to make it happen.
One year later, our team now works out of Dallas, New York City, and Sacramento. We are ecstatic to have officially become a philanthropic movement in performing arts. We are building our organization to inspire girls, instill perseverance, and cultivate diversity by providing the resources ballerinas need.
Dear Brown Girl,
Don’t quit. Pursue your passions to fullest potential. Welcome challenges as motivation. If the world tells you that your skin is too dark, your hair is too kinky, or your hips are too wide- consider the words of the late great Dr. Maya Angelou: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” When you love something and someone tells you “No.”, it’s easy to give up. The true test of your love comes when you push anyway. Ignore the naysayers and keep dancing.
Brown Girls Is Do Ballet is such an inspirational movement. Who or what inspires you to keep building this platform?
Every time I have a bad day pushing this project or trying to get funding for different things that we need I refer back to my emails. Hundreds of moms and dancers thanking us for putting this together, wanting to be featured, and telling their own stories. This is what keeps me going. Messages from ballet greats like Aesha Ash, Robyn Gardenhire, Alicia Graff-Mack, Paunika Jones, etc reaching out to us to say “What can I do to help?” is what keeps me going. It lets me know that my staying up to 3am some morning to get emails out is not in vain. Remembering the very 1st weekend shooting this project is what keeps me going: The moms that I met that weekend explained the high costs of maintaining a ballerina. Supplies, classes, studio time, costumes- you name it, there’s a fee for it. As the girls move on up in age there are other factors to consider. Older dancers revealed how our bodies are not developed to the “ideal dancer’s body” of long slender frames and arched feet. As we all know, staying slim is something we all face, but curves and thicker legs are traits more evident among African American/Latina girls. There are many physical obstacles dancers face and perhaps some socio-economic limits could be a factor as well. Are we graceful enough? It’s easier for the brown girls to turn to jazz and hip hop, but when will we change ballet? These questions inspire me to keep building this platform.
What have you learned most about yourself since launching Brown Girls Do Ballet? What advice can you give to other social-preneurs that want to make a difference in the world?
Since launching Brown Girls Do Ballet I’ve learned that everything in your life happens for a reason. I own a small photography company in Dallas that has been pretty successful but it’s really easy to get burned out shooting the same things over and over. While I realize my photography seemed to be what led me to this new passion, I’ve used so many skills acquired over my lifetime within it. I get to combine all of the things I love most in life in one unit. I can be a teacher, a photographer, a mom, a mentor all with Brown Girls Do Ballet. All of my hats over the years have culminated in this project. I’m proud of it. I stand strong in it and in the work that we’re doing and it has become a platform for these amazing girls to be noticed. I may never know the full depth of how much this may impact our next Misty Copeland but I hope that it will.
You can expect SO much from Brown Girls Do Ballet in the next year! We hope to have the exhibition piece up and traveling very soon in which proceeds will go directly into our scholarship program. We also have several campaigns to launch this Fall and Spring that we are super excited to release! Raising funds to support our efforts has been tremendous work but we’re doing some amazing things behind-the-scenes that we strongly believe will provide resources to our young ballerinas in training. Our campaigns will not only help us grow but also allow us to fund growth of dance studios in need. If more young girls of color are exposed to ballet we can’t help but change the face of “tradition”. Phylicia Allen Rashad once said: “Where the women go, the culture goes..”. Our girls will grow up to be those women so let’s see to it that they have every opportunity and experience needed to shine.
I have be so blessed to have a team of women (and my amazing spouse) come together to make the progress that we’ve achieved possible. My “sister-togs” (a group of amazing women photographers) have been my sounding board since day 1, and one of my largest financial backers to date has been my mom who believes that her baby can take over the world! (Ha!) We have had the support of some amazing studios: Fihankra Dance (Dallas, Texas) and Ballet Afrique (Austin, Texas) that have basically allowed us at points to come in and have free reign during shooting. We’ve received donations from several Dallas area businesses and the moms that have pushed this project are the greatest street team ever! I’ve gained so many lifelong friends searching for the nations Brown Ballerinas and I cannot wait to see what happens next!
If you love ballet or have a special Brown Ballerina in your life please consider donating to our project and spreading the word. We want to give the gift of ballet to as many Brown Girls as we can for as long as we can. http://browngirlsdoballet.com/donate/
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