By Courtney N. Savage, Culture Contributor
It’s summer in NYC and TaKiyah Wallace has just wrapped a photo shoot of little girls of East Indian and African descent for a social media campaign. The girls are sweating in the center of the studio, while clad in unconventional formal wear while donning bronze ballet shoes. Afterall, TaKiyah’s organization, Brown Girls Do Ballet (BGDB), specializes in highlighting the ‘unconventional’ stories of ballerinas across all backgrounds not only of Indian and African descent but also Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. What originated as a simple photography project nearly 5 years ago, has blossomed into a movement of sorts -- highlighting “little brown ballerinas” in the ballet community. Fast forward to today, BGDB has a worldwide reach and is spawning other movements to bring the underrepresented brown population to the forefront of Caucasian-dominated arts and athletics. Wallace says that “a major goal of the movement is to be able to erase conversations about diversity in not only ballet but in other athletics as well -- so that one day it will no longer be seen as a problem.”
So, how did TaKiyah’s project evolve into this? In 2015, a mere year following the first shoot, BGDB officially became registered as a non-profit organization; with all funds pouring straight back into the organization and its participants. Some of these funds come from merchandise they now sell, including BGDB-branded apparel and a yearly calendar, from which the organization was originally inspired. Wallace attributes the growth of the organization to connections she makes through her photo projects and a desire to maintain a support system for the underserved community. “There is no other program specifically aimed at making sure dancers of color, especially in classical ballet, have mentorship from other dancers of color that are professional,” Wallace says. BGDB has also been invited into conversations with ballet wear suppliers about the development of products in different skin tones, which is revolutionary. Most importantly, BGDB has seen significant growth in their scholarship and mentorship programs.
*Photo Credits: TaKiyah Wallace
The scholarship and mentorship or dubbed ‘ambassador programs’ could be considered the backbones of Brown Girls Do Ballet. Professional ballerinas Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy of Boston Ballet and Ingrid Silva of Dance Theater of Harlem, as well as Brown Ballerina Jr. Ambassadors (ages 10-12) and Youth Ambassadors (ages 13-17) provide mentorship to young ballerinas on the ascend. BGDB ambassadors aren’t only located in the United States, they may also be found in Sweden, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Canada. The ambassadors help BGDB spread the message about why diversity in ballet is important since they firmly “believe that every Brown Ballerina with proper access to proper mentoring and training should have the opportunity to learn from, be inspired by, and be befriended by older, more experienced Brown Ballerinas.” BGDB also offers two scholarship programs -- a summer intensive scholarship, a tuition and expenses award provided annually to a female dancer of color enrolled in a summer program, and a college scholarship awarded to full-time, female undergraduate college students of color across any field of study.
Additionally, BGDB has launched The BGDB Supply Closet to aid in the recovery of supplies following the flooding in Baton Rouge in 2016. When Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in 2017, BGDB created an Amazon Disaster Relief wishlist, which garnered donations from major dance brands like Gaynor Minden, Bloch, and Nia Ballerina. Wallace said, “We drove down to Houston, TX, and provided backpacks full of dance supplies that were sent to us, and it was awesome.” This spurred an idea to maintain an actual closet to supply to aid dancers when affected by disaster, and the Supply Closet continues to serve dancers in need across the country -- completely free of charge. This only seems logical since Brown Girls Do Ballet has received the bulk of its support in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, and pilots most of its programs in Houston and Baton Rouge.
During its inception, however, most support of BGDB came from the East Coast. With this in mind, TaKiyah is looking to increase its presence across the country and in other athletics, like gymnastics -- and Brown Girls Do Inc. has even partnered to create Brown Girls Do Gymnastics.
Follow the BGDB movement here.