Every time the young dancers at Be Dance Studios in Miami Gardens walk into class, they see a framed photo of ballerina Michaela DePrince leaping into the air hanging on the wall above the ballet barres.
But on this day, DePrince is here in person, teaching them.
DePrince is a former principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Now she’s with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, where she’s the only black ballerina in the company.
She walks the dancers though a warm up exercise at the ballet barre.
“Tendu, Plie. Tendu,” she says as she walks around the room correcting feet and shaping arms just so.
Right now, there’s a national conversation happening around the lack of diversity in ballet. American Ballet Theater, one of the oldest and most respected ballet companies in the country, just appointed its first black principal ballerina — Misty Copeland, but black ballerinas in classical ballet are still not a common sight.
In Miami Gardens, Perpetua Phillips, owner of Be Dance Studios, says she wants to shatter the stereotypes typically associated with ballet. That it’s for white people or people with fair skin or “it’s only for the rich or it’s only for someone who grew up in a certain environment or background,” she says.
Jendaya Phillips, 19, is one of the dance students taking DePrince’s ballet class.
She say she wants to audition for a performing arts college, but she questions whether she’ll fit into the ballet world.
“Being African-American, but as well as being a heavier girl, not being a size zero… in dance it can be pretty nerve-wracking,” she says.
When those negative thoughts creep in, she says she thinks about DePrince and how she made it from an orphan in war-torn Sierra Leone to acclaimed ballerina.
DePrince tells the dancers to dream big and pursue this art form because it’s worth it.
“Of course there are always hard times, but if you want something, go for it,” she says.
She’s honest about the struggles that have little to do with talent for black ballet dancers.
“You don't see dark dancers, and dark dancers really stand out. You know sometimes they have to powder your skin because you have to be a little lighter on stage,” she says.
Some of the slights are subtle. For example, the basic ballet uniform was not meant for girls with dark skin tones. The pink tights and shoes were meant to compliment very fair complexions.
“I mean, when I see myself wearing pink tights and pink shoes I'm like, ‘This is not me,’” DePrince says. “I mean, my legs are brown. Why am I wearing a different color?”
And then there are moments when white dancers single her out and say things like, “I’m surprised you have good feet, all black dancers have really flat feet. I’m surprised you’re flexible. I thought all black dancers weren’t flexible.”
DePrince says she has to ignore those comments and just do what she loves— dance and encourage aspiring dancers to do the same.
As class winds down at Be Dance Studios, Jendaya Phillips, the 19-year-old who wants to be a professional ballerina, says DePrince motivated her to put aside her doubts of making in ballet.
“It’s possible,” she says.
And every time Phillips walks into the studio, she’ll see the framed photos of DePrince, of Misty Copeland, of Christina Spigner — all black ballerinas and a reminder that black girls do ballet too.
IF YOU GO
Michaela DePrince and the Be Dance Studios will be hosting a small performance and meet and greet from 5 to 8 p.m. July 16 at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex, 3000 NW 199 Street in Miami Gardens. For more information, contact Be Dance Studios at 305-624-0110