Dance on Broadway
Dancers in rehearsal for Once On This Island; PC Joan Marcus. Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown

"Should I watch it to get a sense of what happened, or should I go with my own vision and understanding of the culture?" That's what choreographer Camille A. Brown was wondering in June, when she started work on the Broadway revival of the Antilles-themed musical Once on This Island.

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Delores Brown, photo via mobballet.org

When we're talking about the history of black dancers in ballet, three names typically pop up: Raven Wilkinson at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Janet Collins at New York's Metropolitan Opera and Arthur Mitchell at New York City Ballet.

But in the 1930s through 50s, there was a largely overlooked hot spot for black ballet dancers: Philadelphia. What was going on in that city that made it such an incubator? To answer that question, we caught up with Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet founder (and frequent Dance Magazine contributor) Theresa Ruth Howard, who yesterday released her latest project, a video series called And Still They Rose: The Legacy of Black Philadelphians in Ballet.

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Photo by Alexander Iziliaev. Courtesy BalletX.

You know Philadanco and Pennsylvania Ballet. But other than those staples, you may not think of Philadelphia as a huge dance hub. We're here to prove that Philly is filled with underrated dance talent—and these six companies are just the start.

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Trainee and teacher Ashley Hannah Davis is one of many black role models at Ballet Memphis. Photo Louis Tucker, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

Like other little girls, you fall in love with ballet in a dark theater, and lean over to your mother to ask, “Can I do that?" But then you step into a world where no one resembles you—not the receptionist, your teacher, your classmates or the people in the posters on the wall. You feel uneasy. The pink tights and shoes you wear for class bear no resemblance to your dark-colored legs. You would like to blend in, but your skin, your hair, your body make it impossible.

When you ask black dancers today about their experiences studying ballet, many are conflicted. Most loved learning the technique, but they found the world of sylphs and tutus daunting to navigate. Ballet is a rarefied career and its icon—a ballerina—is petite, lithe, fragile, ethereal and white. Some call it tradition, others call it the classical aesthetic. What it can feel like to black dancers is a commitment to whiteness.

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Just how expensive would it be to surprise your friends with 10 lords-a-leaping for the holidays? If the performers are men from Pennsylvania Ballet, it would cost exactly $5,508.70. While it would be much easier (and cheaper) to catch a run of PA Ballet's Nutcracker, the high price tag is reason for dancers to celebrate.

Why? Over the last year, there's been a three-percent salary increase for dancers in the AGMA-affiliated company.

The figure is part of PNC Bank's Christmas Price Index. For the last 32 years, the Philadelphia-based company has been calculating what they call "the true cost of Christmas" to determine how much it would cost to buy all of the gifts in "The 12 Days of Christmas" song.

What about the nine ladies dancing?, you may ask. It may come as a surprise that it costs about $2,000 more for one less dancer than the 10 lords-a-leaping. For 2015, the cost is $7,552.84 based on salary rates for women at Philadanco. However, the price for this gift remains the same as it was in 2014's Christmas Price Index. According to PNC, both figured are calculated based on a "typical performance."

If swans-a-swimming or golden rings are more your sort of gifts, you can find current pricing for all 12 verses of the song here.

 

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