I often wondered what the other girls thought about when they were getting ready to dance. Was it mundane stuff, like counting the music, or wondering if they’d properly hammered out the boxes of their pointe shoes enough to keep their toes from killing? Or did they picture some vague montage of success, a never-ending loop of tulle and satin and grand jetés and roses littering the stage? Whatever Juliet was thinking right then, I knew it wasn’t 1 in 1,086. That’s the only thing that ran through my mind when I danced, because that’s how many black ballerinas were principal dancers at an American company. One. And it wasn’t just present-day. That’s as many as there had ever been. In history. One.
I knew that statistic inside and out because I’d looked up a list freshman year, just sat down and googled a Wikipedia roster of every notable ballet company in the country (133, although a handful of them, like, for example the American Negro Ballet Company, were defunct). I’d gone to every single website, scrolling down the faces, counting, writing down numbers—although often there was nothing to write. At the end of my project, out of 1,086 female ballet dancers in the country, I’d seen only 39 black faces . . . and out of the 106 female principal dancers, zero. In 2015, when I marked down an X for Misty Copeland, I actually cried, even though I still had less than a fraction of a 1 percent shot at principal. One in 1,086.
My father, a cultural anthropology professor at Columbia, made it his business to know about human culture—especially the specific culture of specific humans his only daughter was looking to be a part of. Dad didn’t see 1 out of 1,086 as inspirational, as the start of a revolution. He saw it as just plain racist. When we got into it over dinner—which we’d done almost every night during winter break, since College versus Company was the reigning Family Fight Topic—he would rail about systemic oppression and institutional elitism while I just shouted names into the spaces between words: Olivia Boisson. Francesca Hayward. Aesha Ash. Misty, Misty, Misty.
Mom, for her part, usually waited until things had quieted down before launching into a stealthier attack—fitting for a psychologist. “Even if you do make it,” she’d say, her tone reminding me that this dream was just shy of opening a water park on Mars in terms of probability (what would that be, 1 in 1,087?), “what’s the long-term plan? Most dancers can’t work past their late thirties, right?” This was dad’s cue to jump in with a plug for school, any school. He and my mom couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t at least audition for Juilliard, if I insisted on continuing to dance. They didn’t get that I would be wasting four of my best years. A conservatory program was for serious actors, singers, and musicians. Serious dancers didn’t have time to waste. We had, as Ms. Adair was fond of saying, “the life cycle of a fruit fly.” She was full of uninspirational zingers. I wondered if she practiced at home, spirit-breaking the way some people do jumping jacks.
My ballet life cycle had started when I was six. I’d seen a class practicing through an open door at the dance studio my mom went to every Monday for her old-school aerobics. One look at the tutus and the tights and I was all in, shattering my parents’ dream that I would throw myself into team sports and science like everyone else in the family. They famously tried to bribe me to take piano instead, but I’d been adamant and unwavering—“stubborn,” if you asked my dad. I informed them that I wanted to dance “in a bathing suit,” meaning a leotard. So they’d lectured me about intersectionality and traditional gender roles and finally said yes to one class, which became another class. They told me I had to keep my room clean to keep taking ballet (I did). They told me I had to get straight As to keep taking ballet (no problem). They told me I had to start paying for my own classes, so I spent a whole summer selling lemonade to the runners on Riverside Drive. Finally, though, when I asked to audition for the School of American Ballet at age ten, they drew a hard line. I could dance, but my life wasn’t going to revolve around dance, not while I was living under their roof. They’d only let me try out for Janus in the first place because it was A) free and B) they never thought I’d get in.
Oops. Sorry not sorry.