I am a third generation ballet dancer, the daughter and granddaughter of Black Ballerinas who never got the chance to pursue their dreams, choosing more traditional careers and motherhood instead. I came along after two tall and uncoordinated sisters who preferred the soccer field over the ballet barre, and by the time I was 3, the decision had been made that I would be the dancer. I began lessons in ballet, tap and jazz shortly after my birthday. Luckily for my mother and for me, I took to it like a fish to water.
I’ve always known that I was different. I saw and heard things differently from my classmates. I preferred to be inside reading and playing with my dolls than outside playing with the other neighborhood children. Some clothes were too scratchy, some sounds hurt my ears, I outshone my peers academically, surpassing them in IQ by the time I was 8, but couldn’t get their jokes or understand why they were laughing at me when I danced by myself on the playground. No doctor or nurse ever whispered the word “Aspergers”, but in the back of our minds we all knew, even little me. We all just said I was “different” and moved on.
So, as you can imagine, for the better part of my academic years, I suffered from relentless bullying from my classmates. Though I excelled academically with no problems, the bullying was so severe that I switched schools three times before the sixth grade. Looking back, it’s clear I had developed Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and Panic Disorder (PD) by the time I was 11. By high school, I had developed anorexia. None of these illnesses would be formally diagnosed until I was well into my college years. I suffered in silence for nearly a decade.
The only place I wasn’t different was the dance studio. I was trained by Cheryl Brennan and Carrie Kaub Smith at their homegrown studio, C&C Dance Company. My dance teachers embraced chubby, quirky, awkward little me and poured into me with all they had, never making me feel less than stellar about the dancer I was and could be. They raved about my natural talent, my bendy feet, my winning smile and my flexibility. I felt so happy there. I remember knowing then as I do now, that I wanted to dance for the rest of my life.
Time passed, I grew up and into an athletic body, much like that of my idol, Misty Copeland – long, muscular legs and glutes differentiated me from me blonde, stick thin classmates. We moved far away to another state, and finances became strained when my Grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and my mother came home full time to care for her. My dance classes were the first thing to go. In a new city, a new state, a new school far away from everything I had ever known, the depression worsened quickly. I trained and stretched at home, terrified of losing all I had learned.
When the time came to go to college, I knew I had to leave this new state and head back north. I applied and was accepted to Skidmore College, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains outside of Albany, New York. I relished the natural surroundings, embraced my whole identity (and came out as a lesbian), and made lifelong friends. Though those four years shaped and propelled my dance career – I discovered who I was as a dancer, discovered why I loved to dance again – I met my fair share of challenges there. Still struggling with anorexia and fighting against faculty members who didn’t see my potential as a ballet dancer because of my race, I fought against my mental illness to make myself the dancer I knew I could be. Two faculty members – Debra Fernandez and Denise Warner Limoli – made sure that I never gave up on myself. With each discouragement, and each setback, they put me squarely back on my feet and demanded my personal excellence at every turn. I wouldn’t be the dancer I am today without their daily, consistent encouragement.
Through burnout, illness, failed friendships and isolation, I turned to my family and to my faith for comfort. I couldn’t give up after everything that I had gone through – God did not bring me that far to leave me. Knowing that I couldn’t let myself or my family down, I recommitted myself to my art form, set my sights on New York City, and worked myself to the bone until I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Dance Performance. I was accepted at summer intensives given by the Dance Theater of Harlem, Atlanta Ballet and Washington Ballet. Following my graduation, I enrolled in the Professional Semester at Broadway Dance Center, where I worked with Ricky Hinds (of Broadway’s Newsies), April P. Cook, Sheila Barker, Al Blackstone and a host of talented others! I accepted a contract at Fiddlehead Theater Company in Boston in February, and came home in March to film a television show that’s still in the works. Stay tuned! I audition as often as possible and am determined to fulfill my vision – to see myself on the stages of the Met, or the Rodgers Theater, or any of the beautiful houses that dot the Midtown skyline like glittering jewels.
Mental illness is not my character – I am witty, highly intelligent, loving, compassionate, relentless, hard-working kind and determined, I am honest and I live with integrity – mental illness is part and parcel of who I am, but it does not define me. I am different, and that’s just fine with me. I am resilient.
I’m here today because of the unfailing love of my amazing parents – my Mom and Dad refused to give up on their baby girl, no matter what hell or high water I put them through. My 4 incredible sisters and brothers never ceased to encourage me and love me to life, in any and every situation. I can’t share enough how my partner has been by my side throughout every struggle and triumph – I cannot believe I get to spend the rest of my life with this amazing woman. Truly, I am so grateful to Jesus for the people He gave me.
To the little girls out there who dream of being ballerinas – follow your daring, dreaming heart to all of its limits. Let your will be unbroken, let your purpose be ironclad. Don’t be afraid. Just dream.