Dance has saved me, again, and again and again. From my early youth and continuing through my current adulthood, dance has allowed me to go to the depths of my soul offering out to the community the aesthetic that mirrors my humanity.
Dance first saved me as a young child, growing up in Brooklyn with multiracial parents in a complex, racially mixed community. My initial experience with ballet, a European dance form, was when I attended ABT’s outreach program for inner city elementary school youths, where they provided a ballet class once a week to students at PS 20. One day after returning from my ABT ballet class in the city, proudly carrying my Capezio dance bag over my shoulder, I was beaten up and thrown in a trash can by one of the street gangs. That day, I told my mother I never wanted to do ballet again.
However, dance did not leave my soul. I started performing professionally as one of the earliest hip hop dancers – dancing, DJ’ing, creating graffiti art, and MC’ing – putting down our weapons and using dance, music, and art as an anti-violent conflict resolution form of communication and protest. It was the heartbeat and anthem of my youth, with dance bringing all the cultures together in a powerful expression and celebration of the times. I danced on the streets, in crews, in movies and commercials, and with a group called Fresh Kids from Coney Island.
The second time dance saved me was in a club after a hip hop performance in NYC when a woman came up to me and told me I was an amazing dancer and asked if I ever thought of taking ballet? The alarm bells went off as I thought about my experience getting beaten up as a child and I said, “No, I don’t want to do ballet. I’m cool; I’m good right here.” But I took her business card and didn’t think of it again.
Weeks later, a friend asked me to accompany them to a dance class in the city. When we walked up to the front desk, there sat the woman who gave me that card. She asked if I was there to take ballet class. I didn’t know what to say, so I said “yes.” She said “Ok, you’re going to take that earring out, cut your hair, and come back tomorrow.” That woman’s name was Edith d'Addario, Director of the Joffrey Ballet for 43 years. She was like my second mother. She gave me a full scholarship, paid for food and medical bills, but, more importantly, she formally introduced me to dance and gave my life direction. I was able to become a professional ballet dancer in an artform stemming from European old-school values.
Dance saved me again as I chose to pay it forward. Relying on the sensibilities, impacted by systemic racism and oppression as a multiracial, special needs human and dancer, I created Roxey Ballet with the mission founded on the all-inclusiveness and commitment to diversity, fostering a creative environment for artistic and cultural excellence across all populations. This opportunity has allowed me to pay it forward every day by working with students of all abilities, dancers from all over the world, train amateur and professional boxers, and provide mentorship to inner city youth. Everything I do stems from the spirit of sharing what was given to me.
As we contemplate the challenges engulfing us by COVID-19 and the systemic racism and injustice in our society, as an arts organization impacting thousands, it is important to allow ourselves the opportunity to embrace the aspect of nothingness to envision the possibilities of something. We have witnessed the evaporation of our artists, dancers, productions, students, education residencies, and revenue, but we choose to move forward. The wind of transformation has brought about the re-envisioning of our values, perspectives, inequities, and the importance of a unified message of hope.
I will continue to forge ahead, reimagining the communication and delivery of our content, producing virtual and live events that can pivot between the two seamlessly, embracing the technology, and providing social justice through art while making our voices heard. Yes, I worry about how to build dance with social distancing and I am also cognizant that while the reformation occurs, the world as we know it may be changing drastically. As best said by Mahatma Gandhi: “The future depends on what we do in the present.” I choose to move forward in my art form, make a difference in the lives of others, model my humanity through dance, and, most importantly, stay in action.