Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Childhood Memories- Ballet Among the Black Bourgeois

Ballet Among the Black Bourgeois

Childhood Memories

Originally Written in 2001

I happened to be reading a novel called Breathing Room and coincidentally I had cleaned out my closet and came upon some pink ballet slippers. In an attempt to get exercise and perhaps recapture my childhood, I had taken some ballet lessons at Grand Dance, a local ballet studio a few years prior. It brought back memories of my taking ballet lessons at a black-owned ballet studio in the ‘60s. The book is told from three points of views and one of characters is Zadi, a fifteen-year old middle-class black girl living in Washington D.C. Her story is told in writings in her journal given as a Kwanzaa gift by one of the other characters. In this journal, Zadi is writing to “Sisterfriend” and she talks about many things, boys, clothes, her father’s new wife and a major part of her life, ballet. She is an advanced ballet student who stresses over her fouette¢s, pirouettes and the wrath of Ms. Snow, the dance teacher. She is also anticipating a role as Odille-Odette in Giselle and dancing for Alvin Ailey or Dance Theatre of Harlem. Zadi takes lessons from a black-owned studio where the students are also black.

This so reminded me so of my experience over thirty years ago when I took ballet and tap dance lessons at Barbara Braxton’s dance studio in West Oakland at 24th and Market. In a ramshackle building on the corner, I trudged up the gray stairs and past graffiti-strewn walls for my ballet and tap lessons either Saturday morning or Wednesday afternoons. I took lessons off and on from about 1959 when I was about eight years old until about my sophomore year in high school about 1966, as I recall.

There in Barbara’s studio, I learned to loved dance, especially the ballet. Barbara said I had the perfect feet for ballet; I had a natural pointed toe and beautifully shaped calves. Over the years I still hear remarks about my nicely formed calves from my years of dancing. Though I didn’t pursue dance as a career (I had a dance major in my first year of college) the truth was I held back. I was shy, somewhat withdrawn, not wanting to shine and be in the limelight. Barbara would get exasperated with me because when we had individual projects, I would make something up short and sweet. She would always say I had the potential but my dance projects were too short.

The students at Barbara’s studio were the popular girls, the daughters of the black bourgeois. Children of doctors, dentists, lawyers and successful businessmen. Some belonged to Jack and Jill and their mothers were member of the Links. I knew many of them through my father’s club, East Oakland Business and Professional Men’s Group. There was Janet and her older sister, Cynthia (who later married Gene Washington, 49ers football player), daughters of Dr. Watson who had a large medical practice and cute brothers. Mickey’s (the only boy I can remember that took ballet) parents was the first black family to buy a home in Orinda in the ‘50s. His father was a physician also His father was also a medical physician. Judge Broussard’s daughters also took lessons there. Cheryl Taylor was older, but she was the daughter of a renowned officer in the military. She also ended up marrying my high school crush, John Ivey( which is a whole other story). I also remember Joslin, who lived not that far from me who was a very good dancer. I don’t remember what her parents did. Barbara’s studio is where the middle-class and upper class black girls went for their dance lessons. It was like a special club. When I would see these girls at different events or outings it was like a special fraternity.

Some of these girls could really dance, some of them were very awkward and I could dance circles around them but still I didn’t showcase my talent or skills like I could have and as a result I never advanced to toe shoes. Anyway, I remember those days of putting on my ballet slippers, I had a pair or black ones and pink ones and when I put them on, I let my young cares drift away. Barbara was a woman in her 30s and she had two children during my tenure with her. She was a formidable, attractive brown-skinned woman with her hair either hanging to her shoulders or pulled back in that ballet style bun. She also taught tap dance. I remember once my sister having on her tap shoes and my brother picking at her and she kicked him with her tap shoes. Barbara ended up moving to San Jose and closing her studio here in Oakland. That left a gap in ballet for black girls, although there was Ruth Beckford Smith who taught modern dance in the ‘60s with the Oakland Park and Recreation but there was none of African descent who taught ballet for many years probably not until the late ‘70s.

Reading Zadi’s letters to Sisterfriend in her journal, I am also reminded of a book by Rita Williams Garcia called Blue Tights. In that book an inner-city girl is rejected at a white ballet studio and told her body is not made for the ballet and finally finds acceptance at a black studio learning African dance. Zadi talks about the joy she feels at Ms. Snow’s studio and I am reminded of her same security and protection dancing with someone who will nurture and encourage her.

Present day 2009:

A few weeks ago, I attended a choreographer performance for the Oakland Ballet. Several Bay Area ballet dances performed prominent choreographers’ ballet and while there was no black ballerina but a black male dancer, one of the choreographers honored was Alonzo King, whose body of work is without question, one of the finest. Even today there are stereotypes about black bodies and dance techniques. But I am so thankful that an avenue was provided for black girls like me in my early years that may have been discouraged from dance and judged by European standards. I am also thankful I have a mother who appreciated art and culture and exposed us, my sister and me to dance. It has been well over forty-five years since I took my first ballet lesson but my memories linger of the fondness I had for the art and the opportunity to be introduced to dance in a positive manner, an art form I still love.

November 2, 2009


'Cilla said...

I remember reading this book. I love your Memories. I never took ballet - always wanted to. Thanks for sharing and teaching me a thing or two :-)

Beverly said...

Dera -

A nother wonderful memory. I too had fond memories of ballet lessons. I did make it up to toe and wore my calluses with pride. When asked in high school what was my sport of choice I always said ballet. :)
Neither of my daughters liked ballet so their lessons were very short lived but I have one GD (11) is a dance student.

Yasmin said...

Wonderful blog I tried ballet and tap and wish I would have stayed with but when I was younger if I didn't excel at something immediately I didn't have the patience to stick with it. Wish I would have...I think it's wonderful for an individual to have an artistic talent...tried to convince my kids of this but like me they stopped after a few years. :( Maybe I'll have better luck with my grandkids one day...hehe.

Ladysilver said...

Wonderful post. I always wanted to take dance. My oldest took tap, ballet and Jazz. I am now looking at putting my little one in dance.

Dera Williams said...

Priscilla, thanks for the support.

Beverly, another ballet girl. I love it. Do you still have your toe shoes? My daughter didn't take to it either. :-)

Yasmin, the important thing is you were exposed. Everything is not for everyone. I took piano lessons for several years and never got beyong elementary level.

Lashonda, I think the younger you start them, the better to catch their attention.

Niambi Brown Davis said...

I always love reading your growing up memories. My mother gave me a book about ballet when I was about 8 or nine, but in our rural area, there were no dance lessons for black girls. I tried to interest my daughter, but she cared only for skateboarding and basketball :)

Dera Williams said...

Niambi, I find that interesting that your mother tried to expose you to ballet even though there wasn't opportunity for lessons. I guess you would have had to go into D.C.