"I had a unique path to dance," says Nardia Boodoo, a luminous, elegant apprentice with The Washington Ballet. She briefly studied ballet as a child, but didn't start serious training until she was 14 years old, attending Baltimore School for the Arts. "I didn't know what a pirouette was," she says. "I would wake up really early to stretch and remember my corrections." But, a focused student, she advanced quickly: Soon she was attending prestigious summer intensives, and she earned a spot in The Washington Ballet Studio Company in 2014. Now, Boodoo is working with her childhood idol, TWB artistic director Julie Kent, and dreams of someday dancing the title role in Giselle.
Boodoo is acutely aware of the power of representation. "It has only recently become OK to have a Misty Copeland," she says. "It's no longer socially acceptable to only have girls who look exactly the same, in any aspect of entertainment. But at the same time it feels like a trend, and I'm not a trend, I'm a human being." Boodoo wants to see genuine diversity, from top to bottom. "You need teachers and directors, ballet masters and répétiteurs," she says. "Diversity on every single level is progress."
As a student at Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy, American Ballet Theatre corps member Erica Lall saw iconic former Houston Ballet principal Lauren Anderson on a regular basis. "I think I assumed her position as an African-American principal dancer was a one-time thing," Lall says. "Lauren became a principal in 1990. Why aren't there dozens of brown swan queens now?" In 2013, when Lall came to NYC for the ABT summer intensive, she registered for two weeks at Dance Theatre of Harlem. "I wanted to experience ballet in an environment where I could feel comfortable and proud of my brown skin," she says. "But I didn't have to wait, because I found acceptance at ABT right away."
Lall, who counts her colleague Copeland as a role model, is proud to be the first recipient of the Josephine Premice Fales/ABT Project Plié award, which allowed her to pursue training at ABT. "The award is one of my greatest inspirations to work relentlessly," she says. But, she adds, "the last thing I want to hear is that my talent was secondary to the need to add color." Those who've seen her ebullient, expressive dancing onstage with the company know she needn't worry.
In 2011, after dancing with American Repertory Ballet and Nashville Ballet, Rachael Jones had decided to retire her ballet shoes. At that point, she was a sophomore at Florida State University, planning to major in political science and international affairs and to work for the State Department when she graduated.
But then another black ballerina changed Jones' path. A message from former New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer Andrea Long-Naidu popped up on Jones' Facebook page. "I was in shock that a woman who I had admired for so much of my life was looking at my profile," Jones says. "She told me she saw something very special in me, and that I should be sharing my gift, that I should be dancing." The two began corresponding regularly, with Long-Naidu offering encouragement and advice. Once Jones graduated, she accepted a contract with The Washington Ballet. "To this day, I will never be able to thank Andrea enough for that first message," Jones says. "I don't know that I would have returned to ballet without her generosity or persistence."
The Snellville, GA, native has been with BalletMet since 2016, and is known for her powerful presence and dynamic technique. She's also giving back to other young dancers through her work with Brown Girls Do Ballet. "When I went to summer intensives, I was usually the lone brown ballerina in my group," says Jones. "And I grew up pre–social-media, so it was definitely a struggle to feel so obviously different from my peers. I would have loved for there to have been something like BGDB when I was growing up."
The answer to Canton, MI, native Precious Adams' ballet dreams lay abroad. Adams studied at the National Ballet School of Canada (relatively near her home in Michigan), and eventually her desire to seek out the best possible training led her even further afield, to the Monte Carlo Ballet's Princess Grace Academy, and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
When Adams went to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to dance at the 2007 Dance Open master classes, the experience was a little bit of a shock. Despite seeing few other dancers of color throughout her training, in Russia, Adams felt like her race was really visible. "It was the first time I felt like, 'Oh, I'm black and maybe that might not be a good thing in this profession,' " she says. "Despite that realization, I was even more determined to pursue my dreams."
Adams won the Prix de Lausanne in 2014, and an offer from English National Ballet followed. Her ultra-refined classical technique has helped her dance everything from La Sylphide to William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated to Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring. And, thanks in part to Copeland, Adams believes that assumptions about black women and black dancers are starting to change. "After all," she says, "when people are excluded, talent is wasted."
Alexandra Terry didn't always dream about pointe shoes and tutus. Though she took dance class as a child, it was competitive gymnastics that originally captured her interest. (She credits the powerful strength that undergirds her ballet technique to years of repetitive routines on beams and mats.) At 13, Terry started commuting an hour and a half from her home in Connecticut to NYC, so she could study at the Joffrey Ballet School. After training with Karin Averty and Irina Dvorovenko, she realized that ballet was her calling, and following a vigorous summer intensive at Ellison Ballet, she transferred to that school year-round so she could fully immerse herself in the art.
Now, as a Ballet West second company member, Terry is excited to be a part of the professional ballet world. "I was watching demi-soloist Katlyn Addison, who's also black, in rehearsal the other day, and I got so emotional seeing someone like me out there performing a lead role," she says. While Terry appreciates the racial progress the ballet world has made recently, she also recognizes the need for a constant push towards diversity. "You look around the room in some auditions and you don't see anyone who looks like you, which is just so isolating," she says. "I think the ballet world needs to give every dancer a chance to work hard and prove herself, no matter what she looks like."
With her endless limbs and regal bearing, Amanda Morgan is an arresting presence onstage. Born in Tacoma, WA, Morgan studied at Dance Theatre Northwest and Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and attended summer courses at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Boston Ballet School, and the School of American Ballet. In 2016, Morgan was offered an apprenticeship with PNB, and, in 2017, she joined the main company as a member of the corps de ballet.
Only a year into company life, Morgan is already making her mark. In addition to her demanding corps schedule, she's danced Rosalia in Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite, and originated a role in Dani Tirrell's Suckle, which premiered last August. "Growing up in the school at PNB, I was never able to see a woman in the company who looked like me," Morgan says. "That pushed me even more. Now, as I'm dancing in the company, it means little brown girls in Seattle are finally able to see themselves onstage. It's because of them that I continue to strive to be the greatest dancer I can be. They're our future."
New York City Ballet corps member Rachel Hutsell was practically destined to join the company: "When I was about two years old, my grandmother gave me a video of New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, and I watched it every single night for two years!" she says. "That was what first sparked my love of dance." Now, her preternaturally assured dancing makes her a natural fit for her dream company.
Hutsell—who hails from Houston, TX, and trained at Allegro West Academy of Dance until she enrolled at the School of American Ballet—initially had more anxiety about making it in NYC than about her racial identity. "In my apprentice year, I was asked to be part of a New York Times piece on diverse dancers. I kind of woke up and realized, 'Oh, that's right. I'm black. And I'm part of this conversation.' " She's disappointed that that conversation has taken so long to happen. "We want to see beauty and diversity come together in unity, because that's what America is," she says. "Misty has gone out there and said, 'I'm diverse, I'm beautiful, and I'm going to succeed.' And that's an important example for all of us."
Dance runs in India Bradley's family: Her mother is a dance teacher and a former member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Unsurprisingly, Bradley ended up in dance classes at a young age, studying a little bit of everything but falling hardest for ballet. After training at Dance Theatre of Harlem and the School of American Ballet, Bradley earned her apprenticeship with New York City Ballet last year. Tall and impossibly long-limbed, she's brought a compelling mix of energy and delicacy to a slew of corps roles, as well as some featured parts in The Nutcracker. "I love the fast pace of the company," she says. "You have to keep up. You see how focused everyone is, and you want to work that hard, too."
Bradley grew up idolizing NYCB principals like Wendy Whelan and Tiler Peck, and aspires to join their ranks. "There's a lot of discussion at the moment about the fact that there has never been an African-American female soloist or principal in the company," she says. "I would love to be the first black female to get to that point. I don't necessarily want it for me; it's more just that it needs to happen. It's not about my success. It's bigger than that."