Story by Charilyne Rojas. Photos Provided by Brown Girls do Ballet.
Born out of a personal photography project based on highlighting girls of African, Asian, East Indian, Hispanic and Native American ancestry in ballet programs for her daughter, the passion project quickly gained traction on social media, growing into the organization it is today. Now serving thousands of young dancers worldwide, Brown Girls Do Ballet aims to support ballerinas of color through various initiatives like mentorships, scholarships, supply donations, photo exhibitions, special performances, and more.
Though ballet was never on her radar, TaKiyah became familiar with the high costs of extracurricular activities growing up in a single-income home and eventually working to help her parents and younger brother pay for his sports activities. A self-proclaimed “hometown girl,” she taught Dallas ISD elementary gifted and talented students for 16 years.
“That was the catalyst that opened my eyes to the opportunities for young people to be exposed to different things,” she says.
Three years after becoming a mother, TaKiyah’s daughter showed interest in starting ballet.
“I had also started taking photography classes…out of frustration with friends and family asking me to bring my big camera to events, I decided to start a small photography business,” she says. “After looking for images of girls who look like her on all of these dance websites and not seeing diversity, I chose that as a personal project.”
Brown Girls Do Ballet went viral overnight after creating social media pages devoted to the project on Facebook and Instagram.
“I began going out and meeting different families as I was shooting the project, and their stories were all the same even though they were in different places,” she says.
She quickly noticed a need for representation and resources for young ballerinas of color across the country.
“It was important for me to honor the kids because that was my background – I was used to working with youth,” she says. “These kids are in these very adult-like situations and trying to figure out how to navigate it in their space and in their bodies.”
But without having any background in dance and being unfamiliar with the landscape of ballet, TaKiyah did not know how she could help these families after their photography sessions.
After friends began asking what was next for the project, TaKiyah had the idea to start a scholarship fund.
“This is what I can wrap my head around – I teach elementary school. Let’s identify some young girl who has never taken ballet before, and let’s send her to class for the first time,” she says.
In shooting the photography project, every family received one free 8×10 print, but if parents wanted more images, she asked them to donate to the budding scholarship. After awarding the first recipients, the need for more scholarships grew. Brown Girls Do Ballet was officially filed as a nonprofit organization in 2016.
Though TaKiyah was still teaching full-time, a Facebook grant allowed her to devote herself to the mission full-time in 2020.
“I think one of the things that made the organization unique is that we operated in the virtual space before it was necessary. So when COVID happened, there wasn’t panic – it was our time,” she says.
Brown Girls Do Ballet continued flourishing throughout the pandemic, even earning its first brick-and-mortar office. Though she still manages the organization primarily herself, TaKiyah has a supportive team nationwide.
“I do have a bunch of amazing young interns that help me with social media and keeping on the trends, and making sure that I’m thinking about what the young people need. It’s very important to me that I include them in all the decisions I make in the organization,” she says.
Brown Girls Do Ballet offers a comprehensive range of resources, from scholarships and supply donations to mentorships and studio grants. After receiving emails from dancers of color across the nation looking for things like brown tights to assistance preparing for summer intensives in New York City, TaKiyah officially formed the mentorship program.
“We pair young girls who desire to move forward in their dance career – whether that be through professional dance or performance or arts administration – with professional dance mentors who have already gone that route and can help guide them to where they want to go.”
The mentees aged 10 to 17 – called ambassadors – also helped launch other initiatives, including the organization’s supply closet, which has provided relief efforts for studios after disasters like floods in Houston and Louisiana.
“We rally the troops and put together a wishlist for those local studios to give those dancers a sense of normalcy when it’s time to return,” she says.
TaKiyah explains that they also help families in crisis or displaced for whatever reason.
“A lot of people think ‘it’s just dance,’ but really for a child, it’s about a sense of normalcy,” she says. “I may be in a new environment or a new home, but I’ve always danced. So if my mom is still willing to make sure I can get to a studio and do that, I need these tools.”
The Pointe shoe program, another brainchild of the student ambassadors, helps provide the costly but necessary shoes for young dancers.
“Pointe shoes are super expensive, they don’t last a long time, and girls go through them like hotcakes,” TaKiyah says.
With ballerinas training five to six days a week and going through four to five pairs of Pointe shoes each month, the organization allows families to reapply several times throughout the year to ensure shoes are not a heavy financial burden.
“The whole idea is to keep girls dancing – not necessarily create the next Misty Copeland or Michaela Deprince, but because every child deserves a chance to pursue something they love,” TaKiyah says.
The small studio grant was born from a need to support dancers from studios in smaller communities nationwide.
“The idea with the small studio grant was to help out the small studios – infuse some relationships and monetary fabric – into what they’re doing so that there’s an allyship,” TaKiyah says.
Grant funding helps studios provide access to further training for their talented dancers of color or make improvements to their studio. Since its inception, the grant program has grown from five applicants to 180 applicants this year, with most studios requesting funding for the expensive marley flooring required for their dancers.
Brown Girls Do Ballet also helps prepare ballerinas for futures beyond dance.
“When they reach the age of 16-17, and they’re thinking about what their lives look like after high school, they know by that age if a professional route is something they want to pursue or can pursue…if they know they want to go to college but don’t know what to study, we pair them with dancers who have gone to college and maybe pursued something that was dance adjacent,” TaKiyah says.
The possible career paths are endless with dancers needing physical therapists, doctors, mental health therapists and so much more support. TaKiyah proudly shares that this year’s graduating class of 11 students are all moving on to higher education, with one student also pursuing professional dance.
As a veteran educator and now a seasoned dance mom, TaKiyah offers valuable advice to young dancers:
“Keep going. Keep dancing. Even if you know there are people around you that are not rooting for you, because it’s very hard for dancers of color to move up, especially when we’re talking about classical ballet. Even when you feel like maybe I’m not good enough or maybe this isn’t the place I need to be. Find a way to keep dancing. We have a huge network of dancers so if you ever feel alone, even if you’re not in our mentorship program and you want to be connected with a dancer who might be in your area, we probably know someone and can pair you with someone that can help navigate where you are.”
TaKiyah’s book “The Color of Dance” comes out this September. It spans her journey with the families and dancers she’s met since the original photography project.
To join the movement and support the mission of Brown Girls Do Ballet, visit their website at www.browngirlsdoballet.com.