Photo Credit: Aaron Fairooz for Brown Girls Do Ballet
As soon as TaKiyah Wallace-McMillian’s 3-year-old daughter was interested in taking ballet, she did what most dance moms would do and toured local studios in the community to find the best place for her daughter’s dance education. One thing that stood out to Wallace-McMillan at all the studios though was a lack of cultural diversity. No faces in these ballet classes looked like her daughter. After she selected a studio for her daughter that was far from their house, Wallace-McMillian used her photography skills to launch a personal photography project documenting ballerinas of color. A few years later, after her project received tons of media attention, Wallace-McMillian expanded the project into the nonprofit organization she runs today called Brown Girls Do Ballet.
Brown Girls Do Ballet is a division of Brown Girls Do Inc., and its purpose is to promote diversity in the arts by providing annual scholarships, a mentor network, and community programs to young girls. Striving to touch the lives of little ballerinas everywhere, this nonprofit helps to increase participation of underrepresented minority populations in ballet programs through organizing and arranging ballet performances and photo exhibitions and providing resources to assist young girls in their ballet development and training.
Through Wallace-McMillian’s experience with her photography project, she developed a passion for re-defining the art form of ballet to reflect today’s diverse society. “It was a personal want and desire for me to look for dancers of color because of what I saw when looking for classes for my daughter. I didn’t realize that it was something other people were looking for as well,” said Wallace-McMillian to the Dallas Observer. Originally, she set out to create a media outlet highlighting the diversity of ballerinas, but what she ended up creating was a viral movement. Since her photography project developed into Brown Girls Do Ballet in 2013, the nonprofit was featured on BET, and in various major publications such as the Huffington Post and Allure Magazine.
Certainly, the most notable aspect of Brown Girls Do Ballet is the variety of initiatives that it provides to help ballerinas in underserved communities. On the studio level, this nonprofit has an annual small studio grant, which is a one-time $500 grant awarded to a small studio or school providing ballet classes to primarily underserved populations. It also runs a large ambassador and mentorship program for aspiring ballerinas. Junior (ages 10-12) and youth (ages 13-17) ambassadors spread positivity about the role that diversity plays in classical ballet. They combat negative stereotypes about dancers of color and serve as role models for dancers around them. Also, youth ambassadors speak at regional Brown Girls Do Ballet functions, host and/or attend Brown Ballerina gatherings in their town or community and commit to mentoring one or more younger Brown Ballerinas. Lastly, Brown Girls Do Ballet partners with major shoe retailers to offer ballerinas discounts on pointe shoes, and it runs a supply closet to serve young dancers in need by providing them with free donated dance supplies.
Photo Credit: Brown Girls Do Ballet
Brown Girls Do Ballet also offers two specific scholarships to help dancers succeed in their education and their craft. The Brown Girls Do Ballet Summer Intensive Scholarship is awarded to female dancers of color, ages 9-18, who are registered for a summer intensive program. Additionally, the Brown Girls Do College Scholarship is awarded to full-time, female undergraduate college students of color across any field of study. Aside from scholarships, Brown Girls Do Ballet hosts the “It Takes a Village” directory, which highlights ballerinas that started their own personal crowdfunding campaigns to seek additional financial support from the public to further their dance education and training.
I think we can all agree that ballet is the most traditional genre of dance, but thanks to organizations like Brown Girls Do Ballet, it’s beginning to modernize itself from the inside out. The work that this specific organization is doing transcends dance by leaps and bounds. It gives children from all different backgrounds the opportunity to gain self-confidence, to express themselves, and to feel like they belong in the same type of educational setting.
For more information on Brown Girls Do Ballet, visit browngirlsdoballet.com or follow on Instagram @browngirlsdoballet. You can also listen to the Brown Girls Do podcast.