My first thought upon walking into an all-white beginners’ ballet class at a dance studio in Hammond, Indiana, was, why did my momma bring me here? I was 6 years old, and I’d begged and pleaded to start ballet because it was one of the few styles I hadn’t tried. I knew very little about the art and had never actually seen a Black ballerina, but I was so excited to learn to flex and point and twirl and spin like the music box dancers in my room. I dreamt of being lifted up, like I was flying—that was what I was really there for, the graceful lifts. I couldn’t wait to be suspended in the air. Days before that first class, my mother had practiced twirling me, and I laughed with joy and excitement.
But upon finding myself in a sea of smiling blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls scattering about with pink tutus and toe shoes, my first reaction was to exit stage left. I was already running late and had given my mother a list of things to bring on the first day; but after searching the entire Gary area for the high-end soft leather ballet slippers, we’d come up empty. All we could find were regular pink satin slippers—apparently, the wrong kind.
I stepped inside the cold room, mirrors lining the walls, silver bars running the length of each. In the reflections, I caught side glances and whispers darting my way and suddenly wanted to be invisible. I joined the back of the forming circle, looked down and saw that everyone else had their fancy shoes on except me, and I panicked—clearly, I stood out more than I thought. The dance instructor locked eyes with me, the circle parted, and he said, “Well, hello there, Aunt Jemima, but we don’t allow your granny’s ghetto slippers in this class. You’ll have to leave and come back when your mom can afford the correct shoes.”
The whole class, including the parents there to watch, burst out in laughter like something out of Season 3 of Atlanta, or the movie Get Out. And that’s exactly what I did (after my mom fussed out the instructor)—got the hell out of that studio and never returned to traditional ballet again.
Almost 30 years later, I was scrolling Instagram and came across a video from a Black ballerina’s page. She was rocking a full afro, brown toe shoes, and dark brown skin in a performance with all Black dancers, and I froze for several minutes. This woman, close to my age, was so accessible in her photo: Her smile was wide as she flexed and pointed and leapt through the air, exactly as I’d dreamed of doing as kid. It took me right back to the joy of twirling with my mom, before the sharp sting of being called a racist slur in a sea full of white kids killed my love for ballet. I had to talk to this woman.
After doing some digging, I learned Hutchinson was a professional ballerina who started when we was 3 years old and now is full-time with the Dance Theater of Harlem, an all-Black dance company birthed in response to segregation in the 70's. It’s not so uncommon to see Black ballet dancers anymore; they now make up about 10 percent of professional performers in the sport, with Misty Copeland being the most visible to white audiences. But Hutchinson, in particular, resonated with my 6-year-old self because of the unapologetic Black pride in her videos and the uninhibited joy that fills her face every time she dances—she’s taken ballet from something stern and rigid and revived it as a source of happiness.
I watched Hutchinson and the other Black DTH dancers move their bodies in sync, like a chorus of fluttering brown swans. They clearly weren’t afraid of or seeking approval from white people; they were claiming ballet for themselves, reimagining what it can be, and proving that Black bodies are welcome and can even thrive in spaces that had tried hard, it seemed, to keep us out.
Hutchinson gave a truly captivating performance this past week at the NYC City Center Dance Festival, in which she danced to Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Watching it, I thought, me and my Aunt Jemima slippers would fit in nicely here. With each turn and point, I heard her say, “Reclaim it. Reclaim what he stole from you.”
She makes ballet look like a healing balm–a way to be suspended, weightless and free from the burdens of life that so often seek to submerge Black women. She taught me that ballet can be a moment of solitude, a celebration of an afro, a séance to summon what was lost in the fire. While a white audience looks on at her pirouettes and grand plies, they may not even know that they are witnessing a miracle. This is the way I want to remember ballet: glittering in joy and giving a middle finger to anyone who tried to cast us out of our first class.
Hutchinson graciously agreed to speak with me for an interview. We talked about how movement is communication, and what exactly it is she hopes to communicate.
Jezebel: What does being a Black ballerina in Harlem mean to you?
Alexandra Hutchinson: If I had one word to describe being a black ballerina with Dance Theatre of Harlem—it would be empowering. Throughout my childhood my parents would play the finale of “The Firebird,” composed by Stravinsky. They told me they saw an infamous multicultural ballet company do a ballet to this music, and how it was one of the most cherished live experiences they’ve ever had. Dance Theatre of Harlem performed this ballet all over the world. I knew from a young age that I aspired to be in this company of dancers. As I grew older, the idea that dancers with melanin could be held to a high classical standard was something I found so beautiful. When I was in high school and college, I focused on my technique in order to increase the chance of achieving this goal.
The cultural significance of this globally acclaimed company is so magnificent; there have been so many ballet idols that have trained and danced in their studios located in Harlem. Not so long ago, in the 1980s and 1990s, New York City was known for having high crime rates. Despite the dangers of the city, this ballet company continued to uplift the youth and community of Sugar Hill.
J: How has dancing been about carrying on legacy and tradition, and breaking barriers for you?
AH: I’ve been dancing for my whole life! I started dance class when I was 3 years old in Wilmington, DE where I was born. I trained at The Academy of the Dance. It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I found out my mother was a classically trained ballet dancer that was scouted by Arthur Mitchell in the late 1960s for the first school of Dance Theatre of Harlem. Although she did not attend the school, this made me even more connected to dance, knowing that it was something we both treasured. When my parents and I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2006, I began training with The Washington School of Ballet and continued there until I graduated from Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. It was an honor to dance such an incredible repertoire and study with numerous greats throughout my years of training—Victor Wesley, Kee Juan Han, Vladimir Djouloukhadze, Septime Webre, Violette Verdy, and Michael Vernon, just to name a few. I always tried my best, whether I was in the corps or in a featured role; there were many times that I was in fact the underdog in the studio. I wouldn’t let the fact that I wasn’t the favorite dim my light, because I genuinely enjoy dancing. When you’re on stage in a new role, you transform, and time stops for that period of time. You shine like no other.
J: Ballet has traditionally kept Black dancers in the background, but you help push them to the front. Why is representation in ballet so important?
AH: It is incredibly old fashioned and closed-minded to believe ballet isn’t for everyone. The color of a dancer’s skin should not hinder them from performing a role. I am a firm believer in dancers earning a role from their determination to their craft and their ability to stretch their artistry and technique to take on a part. Naturally, every dancer, including myself, has their preference of the types of roles they feel suited for; however, dancers of color are frequently type-casted in sassy and strong characters, when in fact, a black woman can dance elegant and dainty roles just as well as a fair ballerina.
J: I love that you wear your afro out, because we rarely see Black ballerinas rock their natural hair. You’ve been forthcoming about your hair journey on Instagram—what are struggles of things people might not think about when they see Black ballerina’s hair?
AH: I have had relaxed hair from age 7, and then again in high school. My high bun requirements were totally different from my high school hair regimen. My hair reached a brittle stage. This was a difficult time because I was stressed about balancing ballet and constantly pulling my hair back. Protective styles gave me something to work with after that. I studied YouTube videos to learn how to transition to my natural curls, and I’m happy to say I have not used heat since May 2019! It’s so freeing to let go and let my hair be healthy, wild, and free.
J: Why is representation so important in ballet?
AH: It is incredibly old fashioned and closed-minded to believe ballet isn’t for everyone. The color of a dancer’s skin should not hinder them from performing a role. I am a firm believer in dancers earning a role from their determination to their craft and their ability to stretch their artistry and technique to take on a “part”. Naturally, every dancer (including myself) has their preference of the types of roles they feel suited for; however, dancers of color are frequently type-casted in a sassy and strong characters. When in fact, a black woman can dance elegant and dainty roles just as well as a fair ballerina. I’m so looking forward to this new season, so I can continue to inspire and give hope to all the people that come support the DTH, especially the little Black girls.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the author’s first ballet class was a pointe class. She misremembered that detail. We’ve corrected the story for accuracy and regret the error.