By Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy
5 Jun 2020
I remember the first year that I competed at the Youth America Grand Prix. I was 17 years old and particularly excited to be participating in a competition that focused on ballet. First up for my age group was classical, where I danced Kitri’s Act I variation showing off all of my strengths: personality, speed and the ability to jump and turn. I felt really proud of how it went—imperfect, but not terrible.
The next day I performed my contemporary solo, a dance I choreographed to a jazzy version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” I danced in bare feet with my natural hair out. Halfway through the solo I forgot the steps and improvised my way through the rest. I felt mortified, defeated and heartbroken. Later that day, I was pulled aside by one of the competition’s organizers congratulating me (what?) and telling me that they wanted to work to get me a scholarship to The Ailey School. I had already participated in Ailey’s intensive the summer prior and had discovered that modern dance was not the language in which I wanted to develop. I wanted to do ballet.
At the time I didn’t understand why Ailey kept being pushed on me, but looking back I understand that in this moment, the reason had not much to do with my dancing and more to do with the texture of my hair and the color of my skin.
Well-intended ignorance. The ballet world is full of it. It took me years to see it. Why were the same three places—Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Houston Ballet—always mentioned to me when people recommended where to dance? Eventually it dawned on me that while two of these are well-known as historically Black companies, all three organizations had been known to have women of color at the forefront: Virginia Johnson, Judith Jamison, Lauren Anderson.