5 Contemporary Black Ballerinas Who Are Breaking Barriers

by Nneka Okona

Like many girls, I wanted to be a ballerina when I was young. I imagined my head adorned with a glistening tiara as I danced and pranced around in a pretty, frilly tutu. My dancing dreams were cut short when my mama yanked me out of my ballet classes after only one year, because of the unrelenting sea of whiteness and its implications on a little black girl in the South. I was the only brown face, the only Black girl, in my class. That was back in the 1980s.

Sadly, the same idea still persists today in the world of professional ballet. It has long been known that ballet has a serious diversity problem—both in terms of letting Black women be center stage and promoting more than one ideal body type. But there are some Black women who have dared to thrive, often being the only one in the spaces they occupy within their dance companies. This, despite the lack of support and encouragement, and despite the difficulties of what it is to be a Black ballerina.

Here are some of these beautiful, graceful, strong Black women who have achieved their dancing dreams and deserve to be celebrated.

Aesha Ash

Photo: Aesha Ash by Renee Scott

A New York native and dancer by the time she was five, Aesha has been steadfast in occupying spaces as a classic ballet dancer where no Black women dancer has gone before. By 18, she joined New York City Ballet company and after remaining there for eight years, moved on to the Swiss company, Bejart Ballet. While a member of Bejart Ballet, she acted as a soloist, starring in many notable productions. In 2005, Aesha returned to the States and joined Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet. Now, she mainly works as a freelance ballet dancer, appearing in productions here and there. Because she intimately knows the struggle of occupying the world of classic ballet as a Black woman, she created The Swan Dreams Project, which is her way of encouraging other Black women from the inner city, like herself, to studying the beauty, grace, and poise of ballet.

Misty Copeland

Misty was born in Kansas City and grew up in San Pedro, California. Unlike most dancers, Misty didn’t start dance classes until she was 13, but she was dancing en pointe after only three months. In what was considered a historical feat, Misty Copeland became the third Black woman soloist at the American Ballet Theatre in 2007. Her accomplishment hadn’t happened in nearly 20 years. She continues to push the bar of excellence within ballet. Not only has she garnered attention for being a Black woman, but she’s also been celebrated for her body type. Compared to most dancers, Copeland has a rather curvaceous and athletic build. She has become an inspiration to many who dream of dancing, as she’s consistently beat the odds.

Michaela DePrince

Photo: Teen Vogue

The early story of Michaela is one of great struggle and great loss. Michaela was born Sierra Leone and became an orphan at young age after both her parents were killed in the civil war that ravaged the West African country from 1991 to 2002. Her dreams of becoming a ballerina were born when she saw a ballerina dancing en pointe on the cover of a magazine. When she was adopted by an American couple, Michaela began taking ballet classes and has been dancing ever since. DePrince has not only beaten the odds as a Black ballerina, but she also combated beauty standards due to her vitiligo, which she was teased about as a child. At age 20, she has already had much success. She has been featured as a guest principle of Joburg Ballet, was a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem company, and currently serves in Dutch National Ballet company. In the fall of last year, she published a memoir titled Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina.

Shannon Harkins

Photo: Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post

Hailing from Silver Spring, Maryland, Shannon Harkins has shattered records at such a young age. At the tender age of five, she started taking ballet lessons. Now, at 15 years old she is at level 7, the highest pre-professional level of dancing you can reach. She has been a member of the Washington School of Ballet for almost ten years. She considers fellow African American ballet dancer, Misty Copeland, as an inspiration.

Ebony Williams

Photo: Ben Ritter / Refinery29

Most known for being a backup dancer for Beyoncé in the ever so popular “Single Ladies” viral video, many may not know that Ebony Williams is a trained ballerina. Dubbed the “hip hop ballerina,” Ebony has danced for many superstars including Rihanna and Ciara, in addition to appearing on Saturday Night Live and America’s Got Talent. Ebony is from Boston and started her career as part of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, based in New York City, a company she is still apart of today.

We hope these five young women continue to inspire other Black girls to pursue careers in ballet in the future, in an effort to bring diversity and excellence to the art.

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. You can find her online through her blog at www.afrosypaella.com or her website at about.me/nnekaokona. You can also follow her tweets: @NisforNneka.