Ballerina Theresa Ruth Howard on Founding Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet

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Photo Source: MoBBallet

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet), founded by ballerina Theresa Ruth Howard, is a nonprofit organization that “preserves the contributions and stories of black artists in the field of ballet” through oral histories. With panels, workshops, and authentic dialogues, this network aims to support future generations as well as provide inspiring and accessible content.

How did your background as a performer and educator influence you to create MoBBallet?
I can call myself lucky to have had a career with Dance Theatre of Harlem where I got to actually see it, be it, be amongst it. But for those people, those dancers of color, it’s generally a very solitary existence. As you train, you’re one of a few, and so you really do feel like a unicorn at times. It’s really nice to present that information, especially now, as we are in an age of internet and social media and information is at everyone’s fingertips.

How would you describe the current landscape for ballet dancers of color?
How has it changed over the years? It really does move through eras. My project with the Knight Foundation starts in the 1930s; there were a lot of black people training in ballet and not being able to perform on any level that white media or white society would really acknowledge. In the ’60s and ’70s, Dance Theatre of Harlem was really taking off, so obviously there were enough black ballet dancers to form a full company. When we talk about the landscape now, from the ’80s on, it’s very bleak. In “white ballet companies,” it’s never really progressed further than [where] it’s been since the ’70s. Do I have hope? I think I do. There’s a lot that goes into changing it, but I know that there is talent there. The question is, does it have an opportunity? That’s not just a financial aspect; opportunity and access are multitiered. Are directors going to hire the capable?

What would you like to see develop with MoBBallet?
Besides growing the archive, part of what I’m doing is advocacy in the real world, working with ballet organizations and ballet companies to help them become more brown-friendly. It’s not about putting a brown body in a space, but how that space feels and how that space relates to them. Also opening up real questions about the aesthetics of ballet. Ballet has not dealt with the racial component, but there are also gender issues in ballet, too. I would really like to see them develop into an organization that creates a network of people and helps the next generation. My hope is that any young dancer coming to MoBBallet can be in any area and see who danced there and connect with someone here. The sky’s the limit, really.

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