NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– Art is the very expression of what comprises the soul of every human being. Despite that fact, the art of ballet has not always been a friend to diversity.
On March 7th, 1917 a seamstress and a tailor in New Orleans smiled upon their new baby girl. Janet Collins would become the first black prima ballerina to dance as part of New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera House. Janet, among others, was opening the door for little black girls with rhythm and a pair of pointe shoes.
For 50 years, the New Orleans Ballet Association or NOBA has offered the art of ballet. In tandem with the New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD), they provide free classes to students that might not have had access otherwise. NOBA’s effort of diversifying ballet and providing access is part of a larger effort across the world. In 1997, the New York Times conducted a survey of ten major ballet companies and found less than five percent of the dancers were black.
Donald Williams is the artist in residence at NOBA and instructs the young men and woman dancers. He is a product of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and studied under the legend, Arthur Mitchell. Williams believes the further presence of ballerinas of color is a beautiful addition to the stage, saying, “It’s a wonderful thing now, because it’s something that through the years, we’ve always strived for… to make the opportunity for children of color to look up and say I can become a ballerina and that is what this program is about.”
In the years after the internet discovered Misty Copeland, “black girl magic,” is the phrase that comes to mind when thinking about black women ballerinas. Jamae is an 11-year-old that has been in NOBA’s program for four years and was selected to be part of their Bridge program, she says, “the beauty of dance is creative. It brings out a lot of your personality. I love the techniques of what you see when you go into the theatre.”
Jamae’s favorite professional dance theatre is Alvin Ailey and she recently got to see them perform. It’s no secret to the value of exposing young minds to the potential of their dreams. Jamae aspires to be a professional dancer on Broadway. Her parents, friends, and instructors say she’s on the right footing to get there.
Donald Williams succinctly explained the importance of art’s access not just for African American children, but for everyone, saying “the discipline and the focus and tenacity go well with you in all parts of life. They can do whatever they want and that is something that this program strives to teach these children.”
NOBA has many programs throughout the year and their next one is their Center for Dance Spring Concert, May 19th at Dixon Hall at Tulane, University.