Beauty standards bleed into every crease and crevice of America. In the world of ballet dance, Eurocentric, single-minded beliefs of what is considered "acceptable" and "the look" saturate the impressionable minds of little black and brown girls everywhere. Imagine being in class and standing at a dance bar donning the same, required uniform as everyone else—leotard, tights, ballet shoes, and a bun—yet still standing out like a sprinkle of color in a room where everyone else looks the same. The "nude" tights look beige against your dark skin. The pink shoes surely don't blend in as they're intended to. And by nature, there's no way you can physically make the texture of your bun look the same as the dancers standing next to you. This is what it's like being a woman of color in ballet.
Of all genres of dance, ballet presents the hardest challenge for black women. The rigid genre has a longstanding history of a lack of diversity. Due to its deeply rooted reputation of prejudice, successful dancers of color, like Misty Copeland, are considered the exception. Alternatively, they should be the standard and offered the same opportunities as their counterparts since technical skills have nothing to do with the color of your skin or the texture of your hair. “People still have not embraced the notion of diversity within this art form because it's always been seen as an exclusive art form," Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, told Pointe Magazine. "It's not only been exclusive of people of color. It's been very class-oriented."
Body standards associated with black women in ballet have been equally as problematic. "I've heard from the mouths of dance professionals that black dancers categorically cannot become ballet dancers because they don't have the right body," American Ballet Theatre Executive Director Rachel Moore told Pointe. "I think that is an incredibly unfortunate myth that still exists."
Despite it all, black women haven't backed down and have continued to break barriers in ballet. Alvin Ailey School member Dejah Poole is that woman. Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Poole has a passion for dance that began at age 3. Years later, she's evolved into a multifaceted artist, using her love of dance to advocate for representation and champion diversity. One scroll through her breathtaking Instagram feed will give you a keen sense of her enviable style, strength, and candid love of dance. She shares her unfiltered story, full of both accolades and challenges, and delves into how being a dancer who is also a black woman has shaped her perception of beauty below.
On How She Got Her Start as a Dancer
How did you fall in love with dance and turn it into your career?
At the age of 3, my mother enrolled me in dance classes at a small studio called Footworks Dance Studio on the south side of Chicago. Like most mothers, she thought this would be a fun, cute activity for her daughter. What it evolved into she never imagined. I attended classes every Saturday during the school year. This small family-friendly studio is where I got my start and learned the very basic techniques and elements of dance. There, Auntie Toni, as we all lovingly called her, introduced young and energetic brown girls to different techniques and styles of dance. She put us onstage in wonderful costumes to perform beautifully choreographed pieces for our family and friends. These Saturdays gave me and other young brown girls the discipline and confidence I have today. I proudly give credit to Auntie Toni because she is still teaching young brown girls today at her studio 20 years later. Every year, my mom would ask me if I wanted to return and I would excitedly say yes! Each year, dance became more and more important in my life. By the age of 9, I began training professionally. My mother saw my seriousness, determination, and passion for dance grow, so she started enrolling me in summer intensives and different classes during the school year. It was during this time that I started to get noticed and dance teachers would tell my mom they noticed something in me and that I should keep training. So I continued to train at different dance studios. Shortly after my mom enrolled me into a performing arts elementary school where I had dance, drama, art, and music. It was the best of both worlds.
By my eighth-grade year, I knew positively that dance was going to be my career, so I auditioned for a performing arts high school called Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts). I was accepted into the Dance Conservatory Arts Program. I trained five days a week—academics in the morning, then dance in the evening, continuing to train at my dance studio after school and on the weekends. I started to do more summer intensive training, traveling to different states and dancing at different studios. After high school, I pursued my dream of training in New York at my dream place, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in the pre-professional training program where I am currently in the certificate program. When I first started dancing, I was introduced to many dance techniques and styles. My love was for ballet, contemporary dance, and Horton technique. What made me love ballet so much is the discipline, and being able to perform on stage in full attire. It was beautiful to see African American ballerina Misty Copeland. I admired her elegance and drive to become a principal ballerina. Like most young brown girls, I wanted to be like her and her story inspired me to keep going and work at my goals.
On Overcoming Beauty Standards as a Black Ballerina
Over the years, you've mastered many forms of dance, which is incredible. Particularly in the ballet world, what has your experience been like as a woman of color?
I remember at a very young age feeling different as a brown girl in the ballet world. In the dance world, beauty is defined in terms of physical attributes as opposed to ability. I am a young black woman who has struggled with being accepted in the dance world because my body does not fit the stereotypical "dancer's body," which is petite, thin, tall, long legs, "good feet," etc. Because of this, I am a fighter. I have worked so hard over the years to convince people to accept me in the dance world and not to pre-judge me because of what they see. Over the last year, I have had to learn to get comfortable in the body God gave me.
I have learned to embrace, accept, and love my body and not be ashamed. I use my body as an instrument, fluidly, which is a visual testimony to its strength and power—knocking down all the judgments and continuing to build myself up. I'm loving the strength in my legs and curves and to keep telling myself, You are beautiful, and to never change myself to conform to what others think I should look like to be a dancer. No one can change what God gave me. I'll continue to advocate for other young women who struggle with acceptance because of differences, giving a voice and a face to body shaming and the negative comments. I am working on breaking down those barriers and stand against body shaming for those dancers who look like me. I hope that opening doors and minds to acceptance will increase opportunities for young dancers like myself. I still struggle with body image, especially when I am overlooked for opportunities and I think to myself If only I looked like everyone else. I am learning to accept myself and appreciate my curves, technical abilities, and movement qualities. I'm also learning that just because I'm "different" doesn't mean I can't, but I can.
On Dealing With the Limited Shades of Dance Attire
There was a time when leotards, tights, and hairnets weren't made with women of darker skin tones in mind. What are your thoughts on the dance industry's disconnect with shade-inclusive attire?
When I began training professionally there were not many brown girls like myself. At times, I would be one of two in class, or oftentimes the only person of color. The standard dress attire was black leotards, hair in a slicked-back bun, pink ballet shoes, and flesh-tone tights. This was very awkward for me because the pink tights looked different on me. And because of my hair texture, I could not achieve "the look" the teachers wanted, especially because I have always worn my hair naturally. I often felt out of place and never really felt like I fit in. At the age of 12, I started at a dance studio called Chicago Multicultural Dance Center. This was the first time I saw beautiful brown girls like myself. We were taught to embrace our differences, wear flesh-tone tights, and dye our ballet and pointe shoes to reflect our true complexions. We were encouraged to wear our hair up in the manner that we could. It was still a struggle because we had to dye our tights and paint our pointe and ballet shoes.
Over the years, the dance industry has realized that there is a need for a more diverse range of products and attire for dancers of color. It's evident because of social media platforms and so many amazing dancers of color in the industry who are inspiring young dancers like myself. Now, many dance stores are selling a variety and range of brown skin tone tights. Bloch dancewear created brown flesh-tone pointe shoes and brown flesh–tone ballet shoes, which is amazing to witness. However, sadly I am still required to wear pink tights and pink ballet shoes. On the occasions when I have the opportunity to wear whatever I want for class, I wear my flesh-tone tights and ballet shoes.
On Being a Ballerina With Natural Hair
I love that you experiment with natural styles. Have you ever experienced microaggressions or discriminatory treatment because of the way you choose to wear your hair?
I feel like I have to wear my hair a certain way to conform to the demands of what a choreographer wants to capture in a particular style. The reason I decide to wear natural styles like twists is that I’m sweating a lot from dance and it’s a protective style. In ballet and modern dance, your hair must be neatly slicked back into a bun. With my hair texture, it’s not easy for my hair to stay slicked in a ponytail for long periods without a lot of products. By having thin twists in my hair, I'm able to have that clean, desired look without a lot of time and effort. I also don't have to use damaging products. Another thing that many non-African Americans in the dance world don't understand is that certain hairstyles requested for shows aren't possible, especially for quick changes between a piece. Many don't understand that our hair can't lay a certain way or be switched to a different look so effortlessly. It's hard to go from having a slicked bun with so many hair products in it to hold my hair down for one piece to wearing it straight and down without it sticking up.
It's challenging to be in a setting where you are the minority and getting pre-judged just from the color of your skin before you even stand on the dance floor, but it's not a surprise. Sadly, it's thought that only Caucasians are considered ballerinas and are going to get the job, but it doesn't mean we don't still fight for it. It makes me work even harder and want it harder. My mom always reminds me that no one or anything defines me. So if I want something, then I continue to go for it!
On Her Beauty Routine
I love this facial spray because it's so refreshing on my skin to give it a boost post-dance classes or to hydrate it during the day.
I recently started using Rihanna’s Fenty makeup line.
I love the glow I get from her foundation and this gold highlighter.
This is a really cool pen-style brow pencil that has different shades to highlight and define your brows. It's also water-resistant, which is great especially since I sweat a lot during rehearsals and performances.
In terms of a skincare regimen, I struggle with acne and I really try to avoid products that clog or exacerbate breakouts. So I change products frequently if necessary. I'm currently seeing a dermatologist. In this industry, makeup and haircare are used so frequently, so taking care of my skin is very important.
On Her Wellness Routine
Could you walk us through the wellness routine you rely on to keep your mind, body, and spirit at their best?
Dance itself keeps me in shape because I'm dancing seven days a week and burning a lot of calories. I try to eat clean, but I cheat sometimes, which is normal. I start every morning with hot mint tea and Nature's Bounty Hair, Skin & Nails vitamins ($7). They work. To keep my energy levels high throughout the day, I eat a handful of nuts, like raw, unsalted pecans, almonds, and cashews with dried cranberries. You can make this blend yourself from Whole Foods. Sometimes I'll also eat an apple with peanut butter or Boom Chicka Pop Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn, which is my all-time favorite! When the weather is warm in New York City, I love to grab an almond smoothie or açaí bowl.
As a dancer and for my body and skin, I try to stay away from carbs, white foods, red meat, and dairy products. My favorite grocery store to shop at is Trader Joe's. I get a few of its vegan dishes for dinner. I always make sure to have lots of green vegetables on my plate with protein for dinner. I cook lots of fish, shrimp, and meatless meat as my protein. I crave ice cream every day, but I found a healthy substitute! Trader Joe's sells soy-milk ice cream and other non-fat and organic desserts. As you can tell, I'm a happy customer. I struggle like everyone else to eat healthy, so I try to create a healthy balance and reward myself with good choices as opposed to unhealthy ones.
On Other Dancers Who Inspire Her
Which dancer are you most inspired by right now?
Alvin Ailey American Dance company member Akua Noni Parker inspires me. She has this natural beauty and gives me life when she dances! She has also given me a helpful diet and exercise advice. She's fashionably fabulous and showcases this through dance.