Marie Wildey School of Dance is still operating in Essex County, New Jersey, and I am floored. I spent several of my childhood years, some 40+ years ago, as an aspiring ballerina there, as did many other black folks’ children. Under the tutelage of Marie Wildey, a white woman, who I, even at the tender age of 5, believed had figured out the game when it came to black mothers and their children, offered lessons in tap, ballet, and jazz, with a season that culminated in a yearly dance recital at Newark, NJ’s Symphony Hall. Like Dr. King, all of those mothers had a dream.
Now, I can’t tell you that my mom was one of those mothers, the kind with dreams of me becoming a prima ballerina, per se, but she did believe in indulging my desires and whims. Singing lessons, dance lessons, acting lessons, piano lessons, swimming lessons, and writing camps — several writing camps, all by invitation.
Mom said that I took the stage, whether at a rehearsal or a live performance, as though my very life depended on it. I was fierce, determined, and wholly unaware that no one in the world of ballet would take me seriously with a body like mine. Lord, how I wish that youthful immutable cockiness had remained intact.
As you can see, my thighs were thick, even then, and my legs, yeah, same thing. That’s not the traditional ballerina’s body. And at that point, my mom wasn’t familiar with Delores Brown and Raven Wilkinson, as seen in the video below; she just knew to keep clapping, keep smiling, and to keep paying that bill from Ms. Wildey on time.
So you can well imagine why Ms. Copeland’s appointment as a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre on Tuesday was a boon for every black girl who’s ever laced up a pair of ballerina slippers, yes? Yes. Absolutely. It was also a reminder of why award-winning novelist Martha Southgate penned the Young Adult Fiction novel ‘Another Way to Dance’.
I discovered Ms. Southgate’s novel as I was nearing the end of my master’s course work in the grad film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I’d been advised by one of my professor’s, critically-acclaimed writer Bryan Goluboff, known for ‘Basketball Diaries’, and HBO’s ‘In Treatment’, to adapt a novel that compelled me for my thesis project. He’d worked with Martha Southgate previously, and suggested works by her, as well as his former student playwright Chisa Hutchinson.
Each of these brilliant women had work that struck me, but none of it was available to adapt. Nonetheless, the cover of ‘Another Way to Dance’ stayed with me, as did its synopsis: “Fourteen-year-old Vicki Harris’s dream has come true. She has been accepted into the summer program at New York City’s prestigious School of American Ballet. It will be hard work and highly competitive, but Vicki feels ready. She is totally committed to dancing. Vicki isn’t prepared to be one of only two African-American students in the program. Nor is she expecting the racism she finds within the school. And Michael, from Harlem, takes Vicki completely by surprise. He shakes up her dream world-where Baryshnikov is her idol, her parents never really got divorced, and every pirouette is perfect-and shows her that the real world is bigger than a stage.”
Thanks to everyone who came before Misty and Tuesday’s announcement, including Ms. Southgate, and this era of social media, black ballerinas will no longer be relegated to the world of archival footage, but are now center stage, displaying the beauty, courage, and vitality of another way to dance.
Brava, Misty, BRAVA; keep doing it to it — for every little black girl who started out just like this…