Last week, I ran into Selam’s dance teacher at that circle store. I was behind her in line and told her how much Selam loved ballet this year. I told her that I was hoping to find a high school Nutcracker to take Selam to this year, and asked her if she knew of any, especially any that might have African American dancers in the cast (is it cast in ballet, or corps or ?). She said she didn’t know of any high school shows and then said that of course there were lots of African American dancers in the big New York productions, and then started talking about a great all black production she’d seen in the city a few years back. She then clapped her hand over her mouth and said, “Selam’s never seen a dancer who looks like her, has she?”
“No, she hasn’t, but of course, the only dancers she’s seen have been the half dozen in her class!”
“I have to put up some posters in the studio. I just forgot. How awful. At the least, there need to be pictures up.”
“That would be great, but don’t feel bad—it’s not like there are pictures of white girls and not pictures of black ones up.” (The walls were bare.)
“Well, not on the studio walls, but just about every ballerina thing they sell to kids has just white girls on it…”
“I’d noticed,” I said.
“I’m on it.” she said.
On Monday, I got to the JCC early and got to watch a little bit of Selam’s dance class. They pranced and twirled together, a swirl of pink and white. Arms moved in solemn procession: one, two, three, four, five. In a little row, they took turns leaping, bony arms spread like wings beside them.
Then they sat on the floor in a little circle, and she drug out a huge pile of magazines, and a bag of safety scissors. She flipped through the magazines and held up pictures. The girls exclaimed and sometimes pointed. Here is a chinese modern dancer, just like Daniella. There is a South Indian ballerina, whose face made Sophia’s shine mirror-like. There were tall, lithe blondes, and muscular red heads. There were tappers and Broadway dancers, and Rockettes. There were modern dancers posed in flight, and ballerinas en pointe.
The magazines were spread out and the girls given scissors. They happily cut out pictures, exclaiming and chattering at the photos they found. Selam pulled away from the group with her magazine; she stretched out on her tummy, propped her head in her hands, and stared intently at the photos in one magazine, turning the pages slowly, dreamily, her slippered feet crossed in the air. Finally, she cut out a picture and held it up for the others; a shy smile spreading across her face.
The girls changed into tap shoes, all still intrigued by the photos. Selam took one last look before zipping the photo into her dance bag. Then she held the photo up beside her face and looked into the mirror grinning. I couldn’t see the picture.
I saw this whole thing from behind the door with the one window. There were four parents crowded there, taking turns poking our heads in. We watched the whole class as a silent movie, guessing as to instructions and motivations. The other parents were bored by the magazine activity. I was holding my breath.
The girls were dismissed and sashayed out, dance bags slung over shoulders. They found parents and begged for snacks.
“What were you doing with the magazines, Selam?”
“Finding pictures of beautiful dancers. Miss Christine said to find a picture of beautiful”
“Oh, can I see?”
She pulled out a photo of a stunning black woman in a purple unitard leaping, her long legs a perfect line.
“When I’m big like Claire, I’m going to be a beautiful dancer like that,” she said, pointing.
“And now I’m a beautiful little dancer.”