After 15 years of performing ballet, NaTori Blackman-Gray finally got her chance recently to dance as the Snow Queen — a leading role in “The Nutcracker.”
For the Black ballerina, the role in the holiday favorite is a full-circle moment. She remembers first seeing Misty Copeland dance in a lead role with the American Ballet Theatre in 2015, when Copeland became the first Black woman promoted to principal dancer in that company’s 75-year history.
“It’s very inspiring because you don’t get to see often African Americans play a lead role,” the 22-year-old Jarrettsville resident said. “I feel honored to play this role with a darker complexion because I know there are so many others who don’t have the opportunity.”
This holiday season, as the dance world enters its most popular time of year, audiences in the Baltimore region and across the country will be treated to performances by ballerinas from more diverse ethnic backgrounds. In Baltimore, which boasts one of the largest concentrations of Black people in the country, roles that were previously reserved for white dancers are now available to dancers of color. In fact, it is becoming the norm in some dance companies.
Ballet Nouveau, a Black-owned conservatory in Essex, produces “A Nutcracker Suite” each winter season. That showcase includes excerpts from “The Nutcracker” and classic holiday tunes by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Frank Sinatra and others.
Blackman-Gray — who performed in the version of “The Nutcracker” produced by Morton Street Dance Center this past weekend at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park — recalled years of being part of an industry that told her that her body type was wrong for the sport because of her natural build. She traces this to an industry that she says focused on Eurocentric skin and bodies. And she remembered leaving practices in majority-white dance studios feeling dejected.
“I am very broad at the top and my glutes stick out a bit,” she explained. “I was told that because of my build — and I am a very slim, petite girl … I could not be a ballerina. They want you to be like a toothpick. And for me that’s not the case.”
She added: “I think it comes from people not accepting change. I have had many experiences where I could have been the best in the room, but I didn’t get the opportunity because of the color of my skin.”
When Camille Weanquoi started to dance more than two decades years ago, she never imagined seeing a Black dancer performing the lead in “The Nutcracker,” the 1892, two-act ballet set on Christmas Eve and to a Tchaikovsky score.
Now it’s happening with more frequency, the executive director for the Baltimore Black Dance Collective said. The world of ballet is going through other changes, from casting diverse talent to now offering tights and ballet shoes that complement the skin tones of Black ballerinas.
“As a teacher I am seeing Black and brown boys and girls gravitate to ballet in a way that they have not in the past,” she said. “Instead of being the outsider looking in, you are now on the inside. You can see yourself — even if it is in this imaginary form, you can see yourself.”
Weanquoi, 40, attributes the progress to Black dance teachers who have helped to shepherd a new generation of ballerinas into positions of success.
“It was a wonderful reflection of ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can make a career out of this,’” the Pikesville resident said.
“The Nutcracker” is one of the oldest, best-known ballets for mainstream society — all the more reason for it to be diversified, according to Donna L. Jacobs, director for Morton Street Dance Center, which she opened in 1992. She has also served as artistic director for Full Circle Dance Company since 2000.
“You don’t have to be a ballet aficionado to enjoy it,” Jacobs said. “Historically they [productions] have not been very diverse. That has been changing as of late.”
Jacobs said young people of color “want to be a part of it.”
“When I announced there would be auditions, they started cheering. My 7-year-old students say they want to be in it next year. One of my more seasoned students said ‘I have never seen this many Black ballerinas in one place.’ It is wonderful. That was part of the reasons I opened the school. It was part of my hope,” Jacobs said.
Many dancers attribute the surge in popularity among Black ballerinas to Copeland, who was the first ballerina to sign an athletic contract with Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic wear company.
Copeland “has been almost a beacon for Black ballerinas in the making. She has come to Baltimore, and had a book signing here. That has been the catalyst for many Black and brown ballerina seeing themselves in the field,” Weanquoi said.
Morton Street Dance Center has seen a spike in interest in the center and ballet the past four years, according to Julianna Pahr, its manager.
“Although Misty Copeland has been very significant, we get a lot of people who say they want a Black-owned school,” said Pahr, who is white. “That’s the most common. They want to support Black-owned businesses and they are inspired by the director’s vision.”
The school now boasts 210 dancers — 95% of whom are Black.
“A lot of folks are looking for a diverse school as well,” Pahr explained, adding that 70% of the instructors at the company are Black.
Black dancers have not been the only ones to benefit from the expanded opportunities.
In Annapolis this month, a Latino dancer will perform the role of the Nutcracker Prince during the Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s performance of “The Nutcracker.”
Armani Réy Colón, a Latino male dancer originally from Chicago who performs this season as the Nutcracker Prince in the same production as Blackman-Gray, attributes his first leading role to strides made by the Black community.
“I never thought I would,” said Colón, 19, a sophomore dance major at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. “Growing up, a lot of my training was in white institutions. They were predominantly filled with blonde-haired, blue-eyed ballet boys. I would always get side roles and small roles on the side. It’s a very different experience. If you want ballet to continue and thrive, we need to be the forefront of that type of change and making sure it is for everybody and not a specific point for people. Representation is so important.”
Colón said he has been embraced by Morton Street Dance Center, the company producing “The Nutcracker” at Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park.
“The fact that they are willing to adapt and be willing to work with you is a completely different experience,” he said. “It’s been a great production. I’m really excited to be in it and to represent my hometown and everything. I’m very excited for it.”
Jacobs hopes that diverse productions will also result in diversified audience members, as well.
According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, its most recent findings show that audiences for ballet have the smallest representation of racial and ethnic minorities. In 2012, 80% of attendees were non-Hispanic white adults.
“There is a certain level of reluctance to access programs that have not been diverse,” she said. “People want to see people that they know performing.”
Jacobs also points to ticket prices as a deterrent. She pointed out that tickets to her performance of “The Nutcracker” ranged from $20 to $30, compared to several hundred dollars to see performances in New York City.
“I want our performances to be open to all and affordable,” she said.
Blackman-Gray looks forward to continuing to perform for audiences, as well as a future where she can entertain and inspire through choreography.
“I think the part that makes me emotional would be how the younger generation looks at me while I’m dancing. It reminds me of when I was younger and saw the older girls dancing and being mesmerized by them,” she said. “I think I am a good representation of a Black ballerina. I work hard. That’s what motivates me. I’m glad we are opening those doors, but we have to create our own spaces in a sense.”