Jacob Norman, courtesy Amber Pickens

Black History Just Got a Lot More Colorful with Amber Pickens’ New Dance-Filled Coloring Book

Time to let your artistic skills blossom—but this time, we don't mean on the dance floor. Dancer, choreographer and artist Amber Pickens has used her quarantine time to illustrate a coloring book that celebrates Black dance history.

The Juilliard graduate, who recently made her choreographic debut, created Blooming in Motion as a fun, educational way to highlight 20 dance legends that have brought vibrance to the dance world. Perfect for Black History Month and beyond!

We got a chance to chat with Pickens (and her dog, Broadway!) about how the idea came to be from seed to soil to full-on sprout.


An Early Love for the Arts

Outside of dance, Pickens' appreciation for the arts was fueled by her early fascination with animation and sketching.

For her, one of the biggest takeaways stemming from this project is the newfound knowledge she's gained on each dance legend. "I wish I would've known more about Janet Collins when I was a little girl, or in college, when I didn't see that representation because I was always in these predominantly Eurocentric environments," she says.

Growing up with a book like this would've allowed Pickens to be less inclined to compare herself to others. "I think so many of us do that, especially in the ballet world. We see all these images of beautiful white women, and that's great. Their stories need to be told. But everybody's stories need to be told," she says.

She pondered the notion of giving people flowers while you still can, instead of waiting. Feeding that thought, she considered how flowers are a well-known symbol of gratitude and appreciation—and that's how the title came to be. These ideas naturally tied themselves into the coloring book "because that's what I'm doing: celebrating each one of them and really saying 'thank you,'" she says.

Amber Pickens poses with pages from her coloring book. She is close to the camera, and the coloring book pages are slightly out of focus. She smiles serenely. She wears a colorful knitted sweater and large, colorful beaded earrings.

Jacob Norman, courtesy Pickens

A Seed Is Planted

Four months into quarantine, the concept started to bloom as Pickens began studying more about the benefits of coloring. She also did a ton of research on mandalas, which inspired the floral designs you'll find complementing the dancers on each page. She wanted the theme of the coloring book to embody blooming and growing, and the concept became easier to build on when she realized that both dance and life are about growing through your journey, "not just doing the motions, but blooming in motion," she says.

For Pickens, coloring is a big-time mood booster. "It's like a meditation for the day, a break from everything going on," she says. "And it's nice when the images are something to look forward to! It's definitely like a creative getaway."

Receiving Her Own Flowers

Blooming in Motion honors many legends, but what does it feel like when one of those legends honors you? Pickens felt humbled to receive a review from one of her mentors, the Debbie Allen. As a young dancer, Allen's wisdom allowed Pickens to go through life saying "I'm not just a dancer, and I'm not just an artist. I'm an ambassador of the arts. I have a calling. I can do whatever I want to do."

"For Ms. Allen to like it, acknowledge it and be so gracious to share a quote with me truly meant the world because I want all of these legends to be proud."

The selflessness embodied within Allen's teaching made her a trailblazer without question, in Pickens' mind. "And that's how you reach your highest potential—your full bloom," she says. "It's when you understand that your purpose is so far beyond yourself."

Amber Pickens holds her coloring book, "Blooming in Motion," to her chest. The cover is black, with gold lettering, and features several brightly colored flowers and a dancer. We see only Pickens' arm and one hand as she grasps the book.

Jacob Norman, courtesy Pickens

Current Blooms and Future Seeds

It's been less than a month since the release, and one of Pickens' major goals has already been accomplished. The African American Museum in Dallas—which she often visited while growing up—will begin carrying her coloring book. She's proud that this full-circle moment now doubles as an offering to her home community.

Where does Pickens envision her book in the future? The Smithsonian, of course! When people view this work, she hopes they'll know that they belong. "Especially Black people. I want us to feel safe in the spaces we enter, especially in the dance world, 'cause we still have such a long way to go," she says.

The creativity doesn't stop here for Pickens. She's currently watering a new seed: a children's book. We'll also see another coloring book somewhere in the future. "Now that I've completed Blooming in Motion, I have a blueprint. It'll still be very challenging, but I look forward to creating many more," she says.

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This concept is the throughline of the curriculum at American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where dance students spend all four years honing their audition skills.

"You're always auditioning," says Santana Trujillo, AMDA's dance outreach manager and a graduate of its BFA program. On campus in Los Angeles and New York City, students have access to dozens of audition opportunities every semester.

For advice on how dancers can put their best foot forward at professional auditions, Dance Magazine recently spoke with Trujillo, as well as AMDA faculty members Michelle Elkin and Genevieve Carson. Catch the whole conversation below, and read on for highlights.

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July 2021