Shannon Harkins Becomes the Face of African-American Ballet Dancer’s Struggle

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Shannon Harkins Will Dance in the Nutcracker BalletThe Washington Ballet rehearsal studio is warm and humid from bodies in motion. Overhead lights reflect the sheen on the young dancers’ foreheads, and for the fourth time, Shannon Harkins and her fellow “Nutcracker” castmates have to start their routine again.

“Can you soft! Soft!” demands teacher Vladi­mir Djouloukhadze, demonstrating to the group the artistic, “flowy” hands the Chinese scene calls for — a nearly imperceptible difference from what the dancers had been doing. He runs over to Harkins. “Always keep this vertical,” he barks, straightening the umbrella she carries while she dances on point.

Harkins, 13, nods. She doesn’t especially like being singled out, although in the elite world of ballet, she is often singular. “Again,” says Djouloukhadze, and the dancers from the first cast — who dance the premiere shows with the company stars — scramble back into their starting positions.

Shannon is the only African-American girl in the lineup.

This is Harkins’s eighth year at the Washington School of Ballet and her seventh year in “The Nutcracker.” She’s been a party girl, a soldier, a butterfly. She’s a Chinese girl in this year’s production, but she’s aiming for corps of ballet roles, such as a snowflake. After that, she wants a professional role such as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Eventually, she wants to dazzle the whole ballet world.

“I just want to keep progressing toward being at the top,” Harkins says. The “top” means becoming a soloist or a principal dancer at one of the nation’s most prestigious ballet companies — which also means breaking into ranks that historically have been all but closed to African-American ballerinas.

The problem in modern ballet is the problem of the color line. Scan the rosters of the nation’s top companies and African-American dancers are rare, while African-American ballerinas are nearly nonexistent.

The American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, Harkins’s idol, is a major exception. Copeland, ABT’s first African-American female soloist in two decades, taught Harkins during a summer intensive program last year. She’s helping spearhead Project Plié, an ABT initiative to increase the number of minorities in ballet.

That will require years of rigorous training, intent on the part of artistic directors to include them, and time and resources on the part of parents, experts say. It takes a convergence of commitments.

In many ways, Harkins is the face of that convergence.

A grueling, costly path.

Read the full story at the Washington Post

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