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America has a lasting history of favoring exceptional Black women long before it fully acknowledges their equal capabilities and talents. Whether it was Althea Gibson, Mae Jemison, or Kamala Harris, somebody had to go first. The ballet world is no different.
Introduced into court life in late 17th-century France, ballet proved its refusal to evolve beyond its foundation as an elite European art form. Those in high positions were typically in accord about how Black bodies were unfitting to the aesthetics of classical technique, so discrimination and racism went on to assail the craft. As a result, Blacks were mainly excluded from the best training and professional spaces up to the majority of the 20th century.
Despite the disparity, several American dancers of color challenged ballet’s staunch race barriers and persevered in their pursuits. Pioneers such as Janet Collins (the first African American prima ballerina, 1951), Raven Wilkinson (the first Black woman to receive a contract with a major ballet company – although they reportedly told her the public couldn’t know she was actually Black – she was often required to “white up,” masking her already light skin in pale makeup, 1955) and Nora Kimball (one of the first Black soloists to dance for The American Ballet Theater, the mid-1980s) have not only opened doors for many more hopefuls to follow, but they’ve also paved the way for a new generation of Black dancers who are showing the world their presence should no longer be a surprising thing.
This is the case for Ingrid Silva, a Black ballerina and activist from Rio de Janeiro who is revolutionizing the professional ballet scene.
A lead dancer with Dance Theater of Harlem in New York City for almost a decade and one of the most distinguished Black ballerinas in ballet, Silva gained global prominence by becoming the first Black ballerina to dance while wearing pointe shoes painted in her skin color. Seen during her performances in New York, the “afro” pointe shoes became so popular that in 2018, they were sent for exhibition in The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A major milestone, Silva’s pointe shoes highlighted how the lack of color inclusivity is one of the many ways the predominately white ballet world shuts its eyes to the existence of Black dancers. They are often forced to manually dye their tights and paint their own shoes with liquid makeup foundation to match their deeper skin tones, a painstaking tinting technique well-known in the dance community as “pancaking.”
Ballet was the only thing familiar to the Brazilian-bred dancer when she moved from Rio to New York City in 2008. Long before she graced magazine covers like Vogue Brasil, Pointe, and Ubikwist, she was just a small child whose mother, a housemaid, enrolled her in a dance school to keep her away from the streets at age eight. The program was sponsored by a social project called Dançando para Não Dançar (Dancing for not Being in Trouble, in Portuguese) that provided classical ballet training to young people who could not otherwise afford dance classes. By the time she turned thirteen, Silva earned a spot at Grupo Corpo, one of the most prestigious dance companies in Brazil. Five years later, Arthur Mitchell, the late founder and director of Dance Theater of Harlem, saw a video of her dancing and invited her to attend their Summer Intensive Program. Her passion and raw talent earned her several more invitations to study and train with the company before eventually joining their Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble in 2008 and then becoming a professional dancer for them in 2013.
Even with pushback from the greater ballet community (her dark skin, unconventional coily hair and slender body that “wasn’t small enough”), Silva had found her home with Dance Theater of Harlem, as their aim is to create a space for dancers of all colors, Black dancers especially, to learn and feel seen.
Throughout the years, Silva has become an important voice for more diversity within the professional ballet world. She is the co-founder of Blacks in Ballet, a directory of profiles for Black ballet dancers from around the globe, often used by prospective casting agents and dance companies. In an interview with Travel Noire, she explains why its mission is so important: “Every Black ballet dancer has a different background, a different path, a different story to tell, and that’s what Blacks in Ballet wants to share with the world.”
Always hungry to do more, Silva is also the owner of PodHer, a non-profit organization that focuses on amplifying women’s voices while cultivating alliance and fellowship. Founded in 2017, it has grown to connect women with worldwide resources, job opportunities and networking panels.
She has served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department, participated in community outreach initiatives in Jamaica, Honduras and Israel, and spoke at the 2018 United Nations Social Good Summit. The now mother of a two-year-old has also authored the book, A Sapatilha Que Mudou Meu Mundo, a bestseller in Brazil. It narrates her remarkable life, serving as inspiration for other Afro-Brazilians to pursue their dreams.
In an interview with Allure about her unwavering mission to make ballet inclusive, Silva says, “I believe they [the white ballet community] weren’t ready for me. Black dancers don’t get a lot of [opportunities] to succeed because [people] don’t believe we exist in this art form.”
For now, A Sapatilha Que Mudou Meu Mundo is on sale in Portuguese, but Silva is currently working on publishing an English-language version in the United States.