Leadership, Women

Black Girl Magic in Classical Ballet

Ibe Imo, Contributor

Ibe Imo, an HBS Online participant, writes on La’Toya Princess Jackson, an I-lab Venture Program participant, and her life journey that leads her to launch an original ballet production; with resilience and defiance, she confronts norms and reimagines possibilities to create spaces for Black boys and girls.

La’Toya Jackson (Princess) was born in Fort Worth, Texas. She was raised by Sedalia Johnson, her great grandmother, who she fondly called “Big Momma.” Priding itself as “the City of Cowboys and Culture,” Fort Worth is home to the world’s largest indoor rodeo and a less likely place to make a ballet career.

As a young girl, Princess spent hours watching videos of Prince playing a white cloud guitar, singing Purple Rain. She would also dance along to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. During a weekday church service, Princess had her first solo performance, singing an old Negro spiritual “Angels Watchin Over Me.” “I realized I wanted to become an entertainer.”

 “I took classes in jazz dance and played the violin and piano,” Princess said, recalling fond memories of Big Momma driving her to dance class and waiting patiently to take her back home. By 14, she was getting bored with reading and replaying the same clef notes.

After school, Princess rode home with Brittany Perry-Russell, a childhood friend and neighbor. Perry-Russell was an excellent dancer and introduced Princess to classical ballet. With little understanding of ballet’s training levels, Big Momma enrolled Princess in an advanced ballet class. To dance en pointe, ballerinas are expected to start training around eight years old. Princess was more senior, and her background in jazz dance was not adequate preparation.

“I remember feeling so inadequate. I failed so horribly.” Not realizing she could request to be placed in a class for beginners, she dropped out on the very first day of ballet school. Throughout high school, Princess focused on music writing and jazz dancing. She was settling to become a Majorette–a marching band performer who combines jazz dance moves with hip-hop.

Teenage Princess was struggling to construct her sense of self and figure out what she was good at when Perry-Russell left for California. Perry-Russell was now a professional dancer, featuring in music videos of several Grammy Award-winning artists. “It was bittersweet,” Princess recalled. She was happy for her friend but also felt left behind. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough to pursue a career in dance.”

Atlanta, also known as Black Hollywood, was the dream city. To Princess, “there was a Motown movement in the South.” She applied to and got admitted to study Mass Media Arts at Clark Atlanta University. Clark, the first historically black university in the Southeast, provided Princess an opportunity to immerse in her African American heritage.

Princess also cross-registered at Spelman College and took modern and jazz dance classes. A friend from college invited her to the Urban Nutcracker ballet performance organized by Ballethnic–Atlanta’s first African American professional ballet company. As snowflakes descended, the ballerinas waltzed with impeccable grace and uniformity. Princess was surprised to see Black ballet dancers and pleased that the Waltz of the Snowflakes performance stayed true to classical ballet technique and Tchaikovsky’s music score. “I never knew Black ballerinas existed. They made me see myself in ballet.”

Having graduated from Clark and starting out as an evolving songwriter, Princess worked with record labels like Universal Motown and Def Jam in Atlanta. She was also a voting member of the Recording Academy. Isms in the entertainment industry is not unique to Hollywood; Atlanta’s music and performance scene is also cutthroat. Princess also experienced exploitation and appropriation of her songwriting. One of the songs she wrote was in the album of a famous rapper and Grammy Award winner. Princess did not receive any compensation or credit.

While at Def Jam, Shakir Stewart, the EVP who succeeded Jay-Z, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and Ernest Dion Wilson (No I.D.), Princess’s mentor, suddenly left to work with Kanye West. Princess’s projects were placed on hold. “I was on the fringe, and suddenly the doors were shut.” 

The culmination of events left Princess out in the cold. She had to find a different path if she was ever going to be an entertainer. Now a young adult, she was well beyond the traditional age to break into ballet. “I had to overcome my mental obstacles,” even if it meant taking classes with eight-year-olds. “Some of my challenges came from not having an earlier start in ballet.” She took the classes.

Princess now had a broader mission, to become a ballerina and create musical production that inspires Black boys and girls. With the odds against her, she searched for people and organizations that would give her an opportunity. “I drove around schools in Atlanta, submitting proposals to create ballet programs for girls and boys.” She founded LAPrincess Ballet Prep Academy, an outreach program for boys and girls. The Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta invited Princess to lead their ballet program throughout Atlanta. 

There is a canard that Black bodies are too curvy for ballet. “Fortunately, I have been skinny all my life,” Princess said, acknowledging biased judgments against Black bodies in classical ballet. Subtle and overt discrimination continues to hold back Black ballerinas. Even though Princess trained at Ballethnic, “we had to spray-paint our pointe shoes to match our skin tones.”

Princess gained admission to the Dramatic Arts Program at Harvard University. Her goal was to improve her technique as a dancer and explore the history of classical black ballet companies and their impact on Black ballerinas. “Coming to Boston highlighted my Blackness,” Princess said, with a deeper understanding of the glass ceilings that existed for Black bodies in Classical ballet.

The Boys and Girls of Club of Boston incorporated Princess’s Ballet Prep Academy into their arts outreach program, and subsequently, she became a faculty at Boston ballet. At Harvard, Princess’s company, L.A. Entertainment Group (LEG), was selected for the Venture Incubation Program at the Innovation Lab (I-Lab). 

The I-Lab helped define the company’s core, understand how to raise capital, and organize to create Vanity Lane – an original fairy tale and ballet production. In Vanity Lane, “the main character ElectrKPrincess is enchanted by a spell and transported to Crystalline City. She takes a journey, where she confronts and overcomes three vanities.” Princess hopes Vanity Lane would “help encourage individuality and reject unhealthy standards of beauty.” Princess is not only inspiring young Black boys and girls; she is on a mission to help the world reimagine the impossible.

Ibe Imo, an HBS Online participant, is a feature writer and Harvard graduate student focused on journalism and digital storytelling. His storytelling aims to help highlight various dimensions of the human experience and the emotions that unite people. He enjoys outdoor activities, including kayaking and trail cycling along the Charles River. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

December 2, 2020
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