The girl on the far right was my arch nemesis. The Chloe to my Maddie.
As a 10-year-old ballerina, I never had racial identity issues in the rehearsal room. The wall of mirrors behind the barre reflected the quintessential image of a young dancer -- poised, flat chested, hips turned out and nose turned up. She was me. I didn't doubt her. And that's because my mother made sure of it.
Nevermind that I was the only little black girl in my class (and in my town, and on the whole island), when I told Frances, "Mama I wanna dance!", she set out to find not just me but all the girls on Catalina Island a proper ballet teacher. And, of course, this woman was black.
Why was that so important, you ask? Shouldn't a teacher's credentials speak for themselves, you say? Let me be clear: Syni Patterson, our instructor, was a phenomenal dance teacher. Every class began with "the ABC's of Self Esteem," which we all had memorized by heart. "A. I am Assertive. B. I am Balancing." We shouted from our cores.
Syni also smacked any stomach that wasn't sucked in, whether it belonged to a girl with a little extra around the middle or a Skinny Minnie like me. She called you out if you were "being a brat." "No noise!" was her favorite thing to yell if you landed too hard after a jete. She couldn't abide the actual word or even the unspoken sentiment of "no." She was the dance teacher every little girl should have. But she was also the dancer teacher I had to have.
Syni Patterson, my beautiful ballet teacher.
In a world that was looking less and less like me just as I was beginning to actually take a look at myself (oh, hey, there puberty) seeing an impossibly elegant (and forgive me) strong black woman every week was more than just a drop in the bucket of my confidence. It was a monsoon.
So I really got it when recently super executive producer, Shonda Rhimes ("Grey's Anatomy," "Private Practice," "Scandal") tweeted the following about ABC Family's new ballerina show, "Bunheads":
What mom wouldn't be a little miffed about the fact that absolutely no tiny little ballerina of color is getting her plie on in "Bunheads"? (Full disclosure: Rhimes' production company has optioned my memoir.) Rhimes clarified via Twitter that, obviously, she wasn't slamming or scolding the show as the headlines now suggest, she was just "pointing out one issue." And it's an important one.
The world of ballet is extremely white (and impossibly lithe and sometimes very privileged) and like Marie said on "Mad Men," "Not every little girl gets to do what she wants; the world could not support that many ballerinas." But still, on a network basically created for wholesome young girls, you'd hope just a pinch of diversity would be a priority.
Consider Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre's FIRST soloist of color in nearly two decades. Copeland is dancing Stravinsky's "Firebird" in New York on June 23rd. Guess who's taking the Boltbus just to see it? Guess who'll probably start crying as soon as she points her foot on stage?
Copeland told the LA Times in March "A lot of people think of it as me playing this race card, but I wouldn't be me if I didn't talk about the fact that I'm one of the few black dancers." She added, "They don't know until they've seen these young girls' faces, girls who have been told they will never be accepted into this world because of the color of their skin. This is today -- I speak to 7-year-olds who have been told this. If I had been told this, I wouldn't be where I am."
I get chills just reading that! Knowing that I was a young girl who thankfully never got told that either. I didn't make it in ballet because I was lazy -- plain and simple. Plus my feet sucked. But I never thought I couldn't, and that's only because my mother worked overtime to make sure I was "color blind" by doing what most white kids get to do naturally, holding up a mirror and her name was Syni.
It's an issue that, of course, goes way beyond dance. But why not point it out when the pointe shoe fits?
I'm gonna leave you guys with the story of 17-year-old Michaela DePrince, whose journey from war torn Sierra Leone to the school at the American Ballet Theatre is also chills-inducing. DePrince's goal is to one day perform the white swan role in Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake."
"I know that'd be really weird to have a black girl in a white tutu performing Swan Lake," DePrince told ABC News recently, "but I just hope they see past that." The only way to see past color, of course, is to actually see them all.