A couple of weeks ago, dancer Taylor Fikes had a kind of “Ask Me Anything” session at Columbia’s Harriet Tubman Cultural Center to thank the community she calls her “village” — that’s supported her from her days as a student at Baltimore School for the Arts to her present position in the company of Romania’s Opera Nationala din Iasi.

Of all the things her former neighbors could have asked the Russian-trained ballerina, Fikes was amused by the most frequent question: “’What do you eat?’ What don’t I eat?” she laughed. “You need energy to dance. It’s all about moderation. If I want to eat a cookie, I’m gonna eat a cookie. Just not the whole box.”

I relate to having to work off a box of cookies, having lost many a fight with a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milano Mint Chocolate treats, and without Fikes’ dancer metabolism. (It’s a risk I was willing to take.) But there’s so much more I wanted to know about her journey from Columbia to theaters in Eastern Europe, especially in a discipline in which it’s been reported that less than 3% of female ballet dancers and about 4.5% of male ballet dancers identify as African American.

I couldn’t make her presentation live, so she sat down with me on Zoom during a stop in Chicago as she prepared to head back to Romania to start her company’s next season. For her, dancing comes down to love and commitment, even when “no one looked like me in the art form at all.”

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“Dance was always my passion,” said Fikes, whose grandmother put her in classes at age 4. Unlike other young dancers who focused on their craft exclusively from preschool on, Fikes also played basketball and saxophone. “I didn’t have the stress of ‘Oh, I have to do this,’” she said. “By the time some [dancers] get to be seniors in high school, they think ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ It was serious to me, but not to the point that I couldn’t have a normal life. I went to parties, had friends outside of ballet, which a lot of my peers did not.”

When Fikes chose BSA, she still wasn’t sure that her passion could be a career option. “No one in my family dances, and I heard, ‘You can’t make a living from art,’” she said. “It was something I loved, but it wasn’t real to me. I just didn’t know how that would work.”

If dance didn’t seem a plausible professional path for most people, it seemed even less so for a Black ballet student who “was usually the only one. I had almost always been in private school so I was used to that,” Fikes said. “The bigger picture was ‘I don’t see other Black girls on stage.’ By the time you’re a professional, most of them had moved on. That [training] seemed to be the highest I could get.”

The possibility of a viable career in dance didn’t click until she’d transferred to Washington, D.C.’s prestigious Kirov Academy (which has since closed). A teacher explained how she, a Russian national, didn’t take dance seriously because “she realized it was a track. She was Russian, and thought ‘I’m a ballerina. I’ll always have a job and respect.’ It kind of made me think that maybe I wasn’t trying that hard. And for the first time, I thought, ‘Maybe I can [dance professionally]! I have to try.’”

Obviously, the United States is not Russia, and even being at the top of one’s craft doesn’t guarantee a job. But Fikes went for it, earning the U.S. State Department-sponsored National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship, which sent her to Moscow’s Bolshoi Academy of Ballet in Russia, first for the summer and then for her senior year in high school, learning dance and the Russian language. She got the intensive training she was expecting, but quickly learned that not everyone was expecting her as a Black dancer.

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“Russia was an amazing experience. My mom raised me to be comfortable in any room, but it was quite a culture shock, because a lot of Russians had never seen anyone like me,” she remembered. “Everywhere we would go, people were just staring at me, nonstop. The whole scholarship was by the State Department, so they would brief us, and there was one other Black girl there. After the briefings, they kept me and her behind and said, ‘We need to tell y’all to be extra careful. Don’t go anywhere alone. I’ve always been a very independent soul, but for a year I couldn’t go anywhere by myself. There was a shock of not feeling exactly like I belonged.”

The danger wasn’t just for the Black or American dancers; Fikes recalled a Russian classmate who was stabbed in the frenzy of a post-soccer game crowd. But inside the walls of the school, she was “exposed to a whole new world of ballet. It was so amazing there and in Europe in general,” she said.

After her time in Moscow, she kept perfecting her technique at New York’s Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet Chicago’s trainee program, eventually signing a contract with Atlanta Ballet. “As much as I liked it — and it’s not that there aren’t amazing companies here [in the United States], places I felt very warm and welcome — in the back of my head, I was thinking ‘I have got to get back to Europe.’”

Fikes said racism is a reality everywhere, but much like Tina Turner, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Black artists before her, “the culture there was different. In Europe, I’m a dancer first. It’s like, ‘She’s really talented’ and then ‘She’s Black,’” she said. “Here, I get, ‘But she’s Black!’”

Race aside, Fikes said European dancers, who dream of coming to the U.S., ask “Why are you here?” “I do miss home sometimes, but honestly, I love living in Europe,” she said.

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It’s funny — so many Black kids were traditionally taught the way to financial stability is to get a good government job. In Romania, dancing “is a government job,” Fikes said. That seems both unimaginable and also wonderful to me.

I can’t dance, but I know something about being the only Black person in a newsroom, or having people confused about why you have your job. I asked Fikes about advice she’d give to young dancers of color.

“I think about vetting your environment,” she said. “It’s not as much about how many [Black people] there are as much as how well they’re doing. Since the pandemic, and George Floyd, people are looking to say that they have us, but you can have a class full of Black girls who aren’t thriving or going anywhere. Are they getting jobs to go to the next level?”

Fikes, who does not give her age in interest of casting opportunities, said that even after years in the business, it can be demanding in every way: “You have to circle back and find that joy. There are rough patches, but you have to come back around and enjoy that passion.”

And while you’re circling, don’t forget to have a cookie.

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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