On this episode of Diversity Be Like, host Sequoia Houston speaks to TaKiyah Wallace, the founder of international non-profit Brown Girls Do Ballet, about how the program got started, the work she’s been doing with young dancers for the past 8 years, and her vision for the organization in 2021.
About Our Guest
Exec. Director, Brown Girls Do, Inc.
TaKiyah Wallace began shooting the Brown Girls Do Ballet photo project in 2012 after searching for diverse classical ballet programs in Dallas, Texas through photos online. She now travels shooting the project and spreading the mission of the Brown Girls Do Ballet organization. She is a former Gifted-Education teacher (14 years), television host, and is the Owner/Photographer of Some Sweet Photography.
3 Key Points
- Brown Girls Do Ballet started after TaKiyah was trying to enroll her young daughter in ballet class and realized there were few to no photos of Black and brown girls on ballet studios’ websites.
- The ballet world has a long way to go in terms of inclusion and diversity, and dancers have started taking matters into their own hands by calling out companies and brands on social media.
- Many of the girls who have gone through the program are going on to major in things like arts administration or business in college, and TaKiyah believes they will be running major ballet companies and studios one day because of this.
- TaKiyah is based in Fort Worth, Texas.
- When TaKiyah was looking to enroll her young daughter in ballet lessons, she noticed very quickly that there were very few pictures of Black and brown girls in ballet classes on websites.
- She put out a casting call on Facebook and began taking photos of young dancers of color.
- Brown Girls Do Ballet has now evolved, and they now pair ballet students of color with professional dance mentors.
- TaKiyah was a teacher for 18 years, and she believes in the importance of the arts in children’s education.
- TaKiyah and Sequoia discuss code switching, and how they’ve started to work toward doing that less often.
- Social media has allowed both of them to establish their personalities ahead of time so that when people meet them, they know what to expect and it makes it easier to not code switch.
- TaKiyah has dealt with elitism in the non-profit scene, and she has coped with that in part by letting the girls who actually do ballet take the lead and be the face of the organization.
- Sequoia asks TaKiyah about what she means by calling herself an “accidental activist,” and she responds by saying she didn’t even know what “D&I” (Diversity and Inclusion) meant until years after she had started Brown Girls Do Ballet.
- She decided to be very discreet when handling the stories that came her way about Black girls being mistreated and discriminated against in their ballet classes, and would make phone calls on their behalf telling them what happened, why it was wrong, and how it made the child feel.
- Sequoia’s goal in starting the podcast was to talk about diversity in different spaces and how to make real changes.
- TaKiyah says that in the ballet world, they are still at step one in terms of diversity and inclusion.
- She mentions how companies posted black squares during the Black Lives Matter protests in June about standing against racism, dancers of color were calling them out on social media about the hypocrisy of acting like they care about these issues while refusing to produce brown shoes and tights that blend into darker-skinned dancers’ skin color.
- In 2020, TaKiyah decided to step out from behind the scenes and share her personal experiences on live videos.
- Studios like Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem were created because there was not space being made for Black dancers in existing classical ballet companies.
- Brown Girls Do Ballet was already largely online and was able to continue networking and providing a venue for the dancers to discuss issues they were facing during the pandemic.
- A lot of the girls have decided to major in things like arts administration or business and minor in dance, which TaKiyah says means they will eventually go on to run major dance companies and change things.
- Sequoia asks TaKiyah how she wants people to remember her or see her legacy.
- The most important thing to TaKiyah is that the girls who go through the program find a space where they feel comfortable and do what’s going to make them happy, even if that means leaving the dance world.
- Sequoia asks how people can support Brown Girls Do Ballet.
- TaKiyah mentions that they accept monetary durations year round, and this year they are amping up their Supply Closet program to help girls who have been displaced by natural disasters or for other reasons get the things they need to continue dancing, as well as their pointe shoe program and their in-person volunteering.
“I love the idea that because [my daughter] has been in these different rooms, she knows how to maneuver and work that space, and that’s how you get ahead in life.” – TaKiyah Wallace
“They may have great hearts, but people are still ignorant.” – TaKiyah Wallace
“I’ve always called the girls my Brown Ballerina Army.” – TaKiyah Wallace
“If nothing else, I know that I’m scrappy…I want people to feel like I was resilient and relentless.” – TaKiyah Wallace
“I want people to feel like I made them feel as though they had something to contribute to [a] space.” – TaKiyah Wallace
TaKiyah Wallace • Twitter • Instagram
[00:00:15.370] – Host: Sequoia Houston
All right, hello, everyone, and welcome to Diversity Be Like, a podcast that explores the nuanced dynamics of diversity and what true inclusion, equity and respect looks like. Each week we interview industry leaders and subject matter experts in this space and get their take on why all of this is important. I’m your host, Sequoia Houston. And today we will be talking with one of my dear friends and my alumna TaKiyah Wallace. TaKiyah is the founder and executive director of the international nonprofit Brown Girls Do Ballet. So without much further ado, welcome TaKiyah.
[00:00:52.810] – TaKiyah Wallace
Thank you for having me. It’s always funny when people say international nonprofit, like, how did that happen?
[00:00:58.090] – Sequoia
I mean, it is, though. It is. And I think we’re all super proud of you. So we’re definitely going to get better at what we can.
[00:01:05.800] – TaKiyah
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Thank you.
[00:01:09.350] – Sequoia
So tell us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and tell the people about Brown Girls Do Ballet.
[00:01:15.160] – TaKiyah
Sure. Sure. So my name is TaKiyah Wallace, as Sequoia said. I am based in Fort Worth, Texas, which is the more fabulous cousin to Dallas, Texas, and I have been in Texas for a long time.
I must say that I’m not originally from here, but I got here as fast as I could. I am like Sequoia also, said the founder and executive director of a nonprofit called Brown Girls Do Inc. More specifically, we are known for Brown Girls Do Ballet, which started for me as a photography project in 2012. At the time, I had a three year old daughter who told me she wanted to take ballet and I know we’re on a podcast so you can’t see me, but I am not that girl.
I didn’t know anything about ballet. I’d never taken a ballet class before, but I did know how to use Google. Google is our friend. In searching. We were living in Dallas at the time. In searching for a studio for her to begin her ballet training, I learned very quickly, just because I’m a visual person, that there weren’t very many images of little black girls in ballet classes where we are on our local dance websites. So this was like I said, in 2012. I was moonlighting as a photographer.
We all moonlight as something and I decided that year photographers have these downtimes after the Christmas holidays when everyone’s all family photoed out and we’re all looking for things to shoot. I decided to take on a personal project in finding dancers of color. So I put the casting call up on Facebook looking for these dancers. The casting call went viral. I learned very quickly that viral means you don’t get to sleep again. So I haven’t slept since 2012, in case you’re wondering.
And that was kind of the beginning of things. After shooting the project for the very first weekend in Dallas, getting all these stories from the moms telling me how important it was for me to continue shooting the project. And I still didn’t understand why. I knew I wanted to see my daughter in the space and I wanted her to feel empowered seeing herself in this ballet space. But I didn’t realize there were so many girls across the world who had the same exact longing.
So now fast forward a few years. We just celebrated our eighth birthday. We are a full fledged non-profit that provides resources to dancers of color. I still, as a photographer, go out and shoot the project. But that piece has become more so an outreach piece in a way, for me to kind of interact with communities around the country and learn those those little girl’s faces and that sort of thing. But we are most known for now, aside from providing scholarships and grants to dancers, is our ambassador program, which is our actual mentorship program, where we pair dancers of color with professional dance mentors.
So that’s the short spheal.
[00:04:07.060] – Sequoia
It broke up just little bit. You said where you paired dancers of color with who?
[00:04:10.000] – TaKiyah
We pair dancers of color with professional dance mentors.
[00:04:13.720] – Sequoia
Nice. So I think what I hear a lot in the diversity space, and I’m sure you probably hear it as well, is what difference does it make? Right. And this is just ballet. Right. But why does it need to be diverse? Why do little girls need to see people that look like them? Why are you making it about race?
[00:04:31.210] – TaKiyah
Yeah, I still get that. We get I was reading the comments section yesterday on Instagram and I was still getting that. Ballet is a European art form. Why are you trying to change it? And I’m like, OK, so are you are there not Europeans of color? Like when do we ever get to see ourselves in these spaces? And not just I’m a black woman, not just black women, women of different cultural backgrounds that don’t see themselves in most spaces would love to be able to do that.
When I think of it from the lens of just being a parent, in general, I never want my daughter to feel like she doesn’t belong somewhere because she doesn’t see herself in that space or she’s never seen anyone who looks like her in that room. So I think it’s always important to make sure that people feel included and that spaces are for them, doesn’t matter how it started. The world has evolved and is changing. And, eventually, I tell people all the time, even when we’re talking about ballet, eventually these conversations about diversity and inclusion, my hope eventually is that those won’t be there anymore.
But there will still need to be equity, especially in a classical art form such as ballet, because it is so expensive. And so even if we aren’t necessarily having the conversations about professional ballet companies and seeing girls of color involved in these programs, there will always be a need for us to probably provide these financial resources to introduce girls to ballet for the first time.
[00:06:03.600] – Sequoia
Absolutely. And I guess for those who don’t have daughters and those who don’t have any experience with ballet, why is ballet important? What does that do for young girls?
[00:06:14.610] – TaKiyah
I think I’ve had this conversation. I’ve been a teacher and I didn’t mention that that’s a big part of my background. But I’ve been a teacher for 18 years. I just left the classroom like three weeks ago.
It was a whole thing. In the middle of a pandemic. So I’ve been a teacher this entire time, even before becoming a parent. And I think what the arts do for young people is astounding. You look at reports about how arts in general help with math and science scores and all sorts of things. I think there’s always going to be a need for little people, young people to be exposed to these classical art forms. When you think about ballet, I never really looked at it beyond just kind of the visual pieces of it. It’s beautiful, right?
It’s beautiful. It’s something lovely to look at. But I actually took an adult ballet class and realized the physicality of it. Lord, it’s hard. Oh, my God, it’s hard.
So you’re talking about a bunch of different things, introducing them to math and science and art through about through an art form such as ballet, but then also how dancers can be absolutely seen as athletes and should be because I could not do it. I dropped out. Like, I dropped out of ballet.
And if you look at these women and men who have been dancing their entire lives and just how strong and powerful their bodies are, I think that it’s absolutely something that is going to be around forever and that we need to be exposing our children to. I think it also introduces you to a different way of living, to be honest with you. I was talking to a friend of mine a few years ago about what ballet can do, not what it has done for me or what it’s done for my daughter, but what it can do for you.
And she was a former dancer and she said, well, ballet changes lives. If you think about girls who have lived, let’s say, in this particular area. I always use Dallas as an example. For a long time. I taught in this area of Dallas called Oak Cliff. And if you’re not familiar with Dallas, Oak Cliff gets a bad rap. And right now it’s undergoing gentrification. So it’s a completely different situation than it used to be.
But if you imagine finding little brown girls in Oak Cliff and then taking them to Highland Park in Dallas, which is completely different, putting them in the middle of all of these little girls from Highland Park who’s always been around these classic art forms, and it’s a trip to the mall for them. This is normal for them and it’s not normal for our girls. It just it makes them sit up a little bit straighter. They’re paying a lot more attention to what’s going on in the room.
I think it just kind of lets you know that or introduces the idea that there’s something else outside of my block. My block is great. I know everybody here. Everyone’s amazing. I love it here. But we we love to have our children be able to maneuver in these spaces. I think I didn’t learn how to do that until I was much older. I love the idea now that my daughter and there’s a whole different conversation. I hate the idea that she is still in a space where she feels like sometimes she has to code switch.
We’re not doing that anymore, like be you fully. One hundred percent wherever you are. But I love the idea that because she’s been in these different rooms, she knows how to maneuver and she knows how to work that space. And that’s how you get ahead in life. It’s not what you know most of the time is who you know.
[00:09:33.780] – Sequoia
And how old is she now?
[00:09:35.460] – TaKiyah
She is eleven now. I just told somebody she was 13 other day. I don’t know where I got that from.
[00:09:41.160] – Sequoia
and already knows about code switching at eleven.
[00:09:45.030] – TaKiyah
She does. It’s so funny how natural those things come. We don’t. I bet you didn’t even realize the first time you did it that you did it. You know, you’re at home. You speak one way and then you’re out in the the world it’s something completely different.
[00:09:55.620] – Sequoia
I didn’t realize that I do it so often. So I had a conver… I was in. So I have a marketing agency as well. Right. And then I came to visit my parents one time and they picked me up from the airport. I was in the back of the car and got a phone call. So I was talking to them and all that stuff. I got the phone call and then it’s, “hi, this is Sequoia. How can I help you?” and they were like, who was that? Like who is that in the back of our car? Because it was completely different than the person that they had just talked to seconds ago.
A nd it was funny to me because I didn’t realize how often I slip into that.
[00:10:28.050] – TaKiyah
And you do it so much,
[00:10:30.540] – Sequoia
so many times, like, it’s second nature.
[00:10:33.930] – TaKiyah
Absolutely. Absolutely. I think I’m finally kind of coming into this place. And this has been a long evolution. This has been me being a teacher where I felt like I had to present myself in a certain way, where I had a contract with the moral turpitude clause. So even on social media, I had to present myself for like high pieces. That’s when you have that close friends list, right? Because you can’t fully be yourself. Right.
We still find ways to code switch just out in the world, on social media. And I decided probably in the last three, four months because I knew that this transition that I’m going through now was coming, that I’m just gone full out be myself. Like I’m just I cannot be somebody else. So, like, if you don’t want to work with me, because I speak in slang on social media, we had a conversation and I slipped or whatever the situation may be, then it was never meant for us to work together.
And I’m also not going to be pretend to be or know things I don’t know to fit in in that space either.
[00:11:34.380] – Sequoia
Exactly. And you know that’s funny, because that’s when you think of the name Diversity Be Like and I’ve said this a couple times in and of itself is Ebonics. Right. And the reason I came up with it was because I was thinking about that’s something else that we have a bias towards is people who don’t speak the Queen’s English, they speak AAAVE or African-American vernacular English, a.k.a. Ebonics, and there are real ramifications of bias in that space. And so I think that’s super important. And we’re going to have an episode about that as well.
[00:12:05.940] – TaKiyah
Absolutely. I think in my space and I’m just thinking for me in general, one thing that is making it easier for me to absolutely and wholly be myself in any space that I’ve been in recently is because I feel like I have so many friends and even personal accolades at this point, that kind of like, are my introduction. These these precede me. So you already know these things about me. So when I show up and I’m like in my hoodie, like I have today, when I’m supposed to be at a real meeting and I’m like, “hey yo, what’s up? It’s so nice to meet you.” All of a sudden they’re like, oh, “she’s like down to earth.” Who did you think you were going to meet? Just because this is who I am.
But I hate the fact that I’ve had to have all these other things. People ask you for bios now, can I can I add you on LinkedIn ahead of time? LinkedIn is not me. Like it’s cute, but I think people are checking you out ahead of time now because they don’t want to be caught off guard. But in a lot of ways that allows me even more so to be myself just because you knew what you were getting when you scheduled this appointment with me at this point. I’m so you ran down my Instagram. I’m sure you ran down my Facebook. Whatever the situation. This is who I am. Hi, how are you?
[00:13:20.790] – Sequoia
One of the things that I found so weird about running MochaStock is that a lot of times people know about MochaStock before they know about me. And I imagine you have the same thing with Brown Girls that you say the name and people like, “oh, that’s you.” And it it’s so interesting. And yeah, I don’t even know how to feel about that, still.
[00:13:42.300] – TaKiyah
That’s a big deal. You know, when I started Brown Girls and I saw that it was kind of quickly gaining steam, I had this whole, and I remember talking to so many people close to me about this, I’m like, I need a face for it because it can’t be me. Like, it can’t be me, I can’t be myself and be attached to classical ballet. I can’t be myself and not have been a former dancer starting this organization. So I was like, I need a face. I need a face.
And I’m looking I’m like out in the world looking for this ballerina who’s going to be the face of the organization. And I remember maybe like a year into looking for this face and still having these conversations, the people chose me and I was like, like, this is not…ya’ll this ain’t for me. This is not for me. It can’t be my daughter because she’s so young. Like who? Like, why do I have to get up and do these interviews? Why do I have to talk? And I resisted them for a long time. I wouldn’t do podcast interviews, I wouldn’t do any printed press. I definitely wouldn’t do any video because I felt like people’d be like, “oh, it’s a sham.”
But in talking to the dancers and meeting the families themselves, they would tell me, like, no, you need to tell your story, let it be personal to you and just lead that way. And I will say in this space, even with the the elitists and the traditionalists who have been here before me that are people and women of color. There’s quite a few of them that it took them like five or six, some of them just last week, to kind of accept me in this space because I wasn’t someone who came to it as a long time dancer who had faced all of these levels of adversity and then decided to start this organization.
I came to it as a mom and a creative mom who just basically said, hey, I don’t see what I want to see in this space, so I’m going to go out and find it and I can’t, for me, I can’t understand why nobody else thought of this before me. But then also I always try and make it known even when I feel like maybe I shouldn’t be the face of it, but when I’m given the opportunity to speak now, number one, I don’t turn it down. And then number two, I always tell them I try to honor this space by making sure, number one, I do my research and I know what’s coming up and what’s behind me. But then also introducing the world to the dancers who have been in the trenches for a long time. And so that’s been a really big way for me to do that is by kind of pushing them to the front, even though the people chose me. And it is really weird for people to be like, “oh my God, you’re Brown Girls Do Ballet. And I’m like, no, my name is TaKiyah.” But I did happen to somehow start this. I tell people I’m an accidental activist. I did not mean to do this. It just happened. And so now it’s my duty to make sure it keeps going because one of these little girls in our mentorship program, I don’t know which one yet, is going to be the person who takes this over. And will have that authentic story like this is what happened to me. This is how I feel like things can change, but we’ll have already done all of the hard work to kind of get things up and going.
[00:16:49.110] – Sequoia
Interesting. It is. It’s really interesting. I still don’t know how to feel cuz it’s like, “oh.”
[00:16:53.550] – TaKiyah
And then they run down the other questions. “So how did you do this and how and what motivated you?” And I’m like, that’s when the part comes that like I’m like, OK, can you, can I send you some articles and you can read exactly what happened and then we won’t have to have this…what do you want on your burger? Let’s change the subject.
[00:17:11.520] – Sequoia
What’s funny is I always get a lot of people who are like, you know what I had thought about doing that, but I didn’t. And it’s like…
[00:17:17.700] – TaKiyah
That happens a lot. That happens a lot. And I’m like, yeah, OK. I did not mean to do this. And we’re here. And then, you know, you and I’m sure you’ve dealt with this as well. When you start something and people start looking at it and seeing and all of a sudden you got a mirror copy of exactly what you already put together. And you’re like hmmm, but it’s one thing another thing that I’ve learned in this industry and other ones that I’ve worked in, what’s for you and what is your vision, nobody else can come and take away because there’s a certain level of stamina you have to have. And when it’s something that you really want to do, something that is truly your idea, something that you worked really hard for. It’s my baby. This is my third child. Right. But it’s stamina. Sometimes you do need to rest. I took last week off and I rested and I was like, OK, today was Monday after Christmas. It’s time to get back to work again. So my vacation responder is still on. So it looks like I’m away, but I’m actually working.
[00:18:17.820] – Sequoia
Right. Well, I was going to ask you this. So you mentioned that you were an accidental activist. Did you do anything related to diversity or anything? Did you have any thoughts or was that a passion of yours before doing this?
[00:18:32.070] – TaKiyah
No, absolutely not. I’m one hundred percent honest when I say that it was not. I you know, I don’t even know the phrase D&I up until maybe like, it was way after Brown Girls, to be honest with you. Brown girls was up and running and then people kept saying “so working in the D&I space…” And then I’m like, what is…?Let me get on my phone. What is D&I? Oh! I guess I do work in this space? No, absolutely not. I think just what it was with me was the forever thing. When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot. We had what we needed. And I think to other people we looked like we had everything, but we didn’t have a lot. I didn’t understand that through the lens of adulthood until I became a parent. But I promised myself when I became a parent, anything my child wants to do, I’m going to make sure that it’s possible if it’s reasonable.
And so we think about she tells me she wants to go to the moon. Well, let me start figuring out when we’re going to start doing that and start saving up my money so that I can get her up there, you know? And so when she told me she wanted to take ballet it was a natural thing like, oh, let me check it out. But being a visual person and being a creative person, if I’m looking at a website and I don’t see, same thing with Mocha Stock, I don’t see any faces of color on your site. It appears to me that you can only do ballet if you are pale, with light eyes and blonde hair and that doesn’t makes sense to me. This is before Misty Copeland was Misty Copeland. This is before we saw so many dancers of color like out in the forefront. So I’m looking at these websites, I know Dallas is a diverse city. This doesn’t make sense to me, but OK, whatever. Only other option you had at the time in Dallas was Dallas Black.
And you go to Dallas Black, at the time, all you see on their website, are little black children. Right? So I’m like, are we segregated? What is going on here?
[00:20:25.970] – Sequoia
Something has to be done.
[00:20:27.990] – TaKiyah
So I’m like, how hard is it for you to have both in one space? So eventually, her story is, I did find a diverse studio, but it took some time and I didn’t know that the studio was diverse by looking at their online presence. And so I thought, well, if I’m having a hard time finding dancers of color and even at the time at the Google, if you put in black ballerina, you got black ballet flats, that’s what would pop up.
So other people must be having the same issue, too. And after figuring out and talking to all these parents, I realized not only was it an issue, but then actually being in the studio, it was an issue to these girls. I’m the only one in my classroom. My teacher said this to me because my skin is darker. My teacher said this to me because my hips are wider. My teacher said this to me because I have larger breasts.
And as the stories started being shared, I thought, OK, well, something needs to be done, but it’s not for me to do it. I just didn’t know it was for me to do it.
So accidentally, that kind of became my charge. But because I did not feel like that space was actually for me and it was something I should have been speaking on because I wasn’t a former dancer, I had to be very discreet about how I would handle things. So a dancer would come to me and say, this happened to me in my studio, or a mom would come and say, this happened to my daughter in my studio. I would just reach out to the studio and say, hey, I had a girl reach out to me. She said, this this and this happened. This is the way this could have been handled. And this is how you made her feel. Because if you’re a dancer and you’re in a space and you are you feel uncomfortable, you feel like if you speak up for yourself, you’re going to get roles taken away from you. You’re going to get discriminated against while you’re in the studio space. And no mother wants to feel like she’s paying her money for her child to be disrespected, especially in ballet, because it’s expensive.
So that’s really how it started. And then I think we got I got my first, like, role in the D&I space that I knew that’s what I was coming in to do. A very large ballet entity reached out to me and said, we want to make sure that we don’t end up on your list. Like people think we have this fictitious list of studios that have made the errors right. We don’t. And so they make sure we don’t end up on your bad list.
[00:22:38.860] – Sequoia
Let’s let them think that you have the list. Let’s let them think that you have the list so they won’t do the things.
I’m fine with them thinking I have a list now. Because I will say in light of all of the things that have happened this year, I’ve learned just how powerful it is for people to feel like we might say something wrong bad or negative towards them. But they invited me to a meeting, basically, and they said, well, how how as an instructor, how can we make sure that a girl that is going through your program or that, you know, feels included in this space.
And so I just started running them down. I actually have a friend who is a diversity & inclusion expert. I pulled her into the meeting as well, and we just started kind of throwing ideas out there. They took those ideas and they started implementing them. And that was kind of the beginning of us really working in that space. So it’s something that we do now. We do it very quietly. It’s not we don’t nobody pays for. It’s not a package that we offer.
It’s just kind of like the right thing to do because people are, they may have great hearts, but people are still ignorant. And while it’s not our duty to educate everybody, but if we’re in this particular space and you reach out and you want to get better, we’ll help.
[00:23:48.300] – Sequoia
That’s super important and that brings me to my next question. So we talked about the catalyst for you getting started, right, but let’s talk a little bit about the work itself. And so, as you know, my goal in starting Diversity Be Like, the podcast, is to discuss nuance of diversity in different spaces. And so I think for us to have a true respect for diversity, equality and inclusion, we have to go on this journey, right, and that journey starts at bias, which is where a lot of people still are but then it moves on to tolerance it then goes on to understanding. It goes on to acceptance and then finally celebration. And I don’t know if that’s linear. I think it can be in some instances. I think we get to different places on that. But if you had to look at where you see your space right now, as opposed to where it was when you started, where along that journey, would you say the industry is?
In our case, I don’t think it’s linear. I think we’re bouncing around. I think we have done a really good job of celebrating. We’re celebrating the people who are doing the right things. And because we are celebrating very publicly on a platform that has a lot of eyes on it and a lot of followers, because we’re celebrating so publicly, it is causing a lot of other entities to look at themselves and figure out how they can get on that list. Right. Because if there’s a list of people doing the wrong things, there is a list of people doing the right things. And we publish the list of people doing the right things. Look at this brand. They did a great thing. Look at this dance entity. They did a great thing. And then I think that makes other people scramble to figure out what they did not do and how they can be like that other group of people. So I think we bounce back and forth, but I feel like ballet overall, we’re still at step one. Still at step one.
There have been some great strides made in the last eight years. I will say that. There are a lot of the larger ballet programs that are trying to be more equitable and thinking about how they handle their dancers of color. They’re providing resources to kind of help offset costs. They’re providing more opportunities for those dancers to be seen and not just because they look a certain way, which I think is important, but they are still so many other brands that are completely tone deaf and blind to every single thing that has happened in the last eight years. And I think this year, 2020, has been the magnifying year because people and Brown Girls is not known as a call-out organization. We don’t call people out. We only celebrate the wins. If you mess up, it may be an internal email
[00:26:38.030] – Sequoia
That’ll be a private conversation.
[00:26:40.140] – TaKiyah
But yeah, we don’t put you on blast. But this year the dancers have felt super empowered. When normally they would kind of behind closed doors it to us, this year they’re getting on social media and they’re using their voices, left and right. And because they are, we haven’t had to. We basically just are trying to help clean things up.
But I think I realized this year just how powerful our word is in the industry, because, I’ll give you an example. This summer, right after George Floyd was killed, we had all of these dance brands and dancers, brands all over the world, black square. We stand, we stand with the Black community and we are not tolerate racial injustice. And then you’re like, OK, that black square stayed up for a few days and then we’re kind of back to business as usual. Well, the dancers weren’t letting that fly, so they kind of kept it going for a long time.
And I sat still, I really didn’t say anything because I just wanted to see what was actually going to happen. If you’re new to ballet, one of the big issues in the past couple of years has been ballet pink. Ballet dancers wear pink because it’s supposed to match the skin tone of the dancers. But you are if you are a dancer of color, that ballet does not match, nor has it ever matched your skin tone. And we just kind of sat there and we took class and we did things the way we’re supposed to do because it was tradition and we never really spoke up for ourselves.
But the girls have really in the last few years started speaking up for themselves. And you have some larger dance brands that have decided to take ownership and say, oh, well, we’re going to start making brown tights and brown shoes so these dancers can feel included. But then you have some dancers or some brands who are just basically like, yeah, we’re going to do it. And then do none of the work at all. None of the work at all, and so when those black squares started being posted, the dancers started watching and they’re like, OK, now you say you are down for the cause and yet we’ve been asking you to make brown tights and shoes for ten years now and you haven’t, like what’s up with that? All of the brands, “oh, we’re doing it. We’re working on it right now,” right. Or “we’ve been working on it.” That was kind of the running thing. “We’ve been working on it.” And then when you actually have conversations with these entities, because I do get to have those conversations with the higher ups, you find out they started working on it, but then something else caught their attention and so it was like, you know, squirrel. Let me work on that. “Oh, they did want those brown shoes.” “Yeah. But it cost too much to produce the brown shoes. And then there’s so many hues of the Black people, like, how are we going to do this? Are they going to really buy it? If we make it OK, then where are we going to make it and then like how do we color match?”
And then it was just so many conversations and people were so confused and none of these people had people of color on their internal teams. So the first thing they do when dancers start calling them out and they have no internal people on their teams that are people of color is they email me and they say, “Hey, TaKiyah can I get you on a call?” TaKiyah gets on the call, and they’re like, “OK, so we started developing the shoe, but then like, we didn’t know…”
And then they run down that whole list that I just ran down for you. And I simply ask them, like, “Have you talked to any dancers of color? Have you figured out, like, what they want and what they need?” And then a bigger conversation has to come with whatever studio they’re dancing at. “Will you allow them to wear this brown shoe that they really want? Or these brown tights that they really want?” Because it’s supply and demand at this point.
And the dancers are watching, so they get back on Instagram and Facebook and they’re like, “OK, look, look at our brown shoes.We have them now,” but you can only get them if you’re with a professional company or you can only get them if you have a name like Misty Copeland, or you can only get them if you’re in the UK because we have a partnership with this particular dance entity. So now how do we make this fair? It’s only for special people? It’s only for special brown people? So I decided this year to kind of step back from behind the computer in the secret conversations and to have a larger conversation on social media.
I went Live, which is something I hate doing. I don’t like doing. But after going on Live and just basically running down my own experience as a regular person, getting on, not as Brown Girls Do Ballet, but as TaKiyah, I want to buy a pair of brown shoes and I want to buy them in this shade from this company and this shade from this company and this shade from this company. Tried all of these companies was only able to purchase one pair of brown shoes. I had to pay five dollars more than the pink shoe. So five dollars more than a white person who would be buying that shoe. And I ended up waiting. I ordered the shoes in August. They did not come until the beginning of December. When I got on social media and shared that story, I think at this point that’s probably our most shared Live. And my phone started ringing off the hook. Basically, I had two groups of people.
“Thank you for sharing this information.” And then the other group of people were the people who were in the organization, basically, they weren’t asking me to take it down. They were basically like, well, let me explain. And I’m like, no, no explanation. Like you had all this time to get your stuff together. And the dancers are telling you you weren’t listening. They were in your comment section. You weren’t listening. You’re at some point you’re deleting comments, but you will talk to me in private when I share publicly what my experience was.
And I didn’t even call out any particular brands, but it was easy for the dancers to guess in the comment section. All of a sudden now we’re really going to do something about it, because you’ve embarrassed us. You’ve embarrassed us publicly. You, Brown Girls Do Ballet. And now all of a sudden it’s not just you’re TaKiyah. It’s like that girl who runs Brown Girls Do Ballet put us on blast. So there’s still a lot to do in this particular space.
You know, this is not a space where the people in charge are diverse at all. It is still very white in ballet. And then the companies that are diverse are were built because they saw a need. You have Ailey Company, Dance Theatre of Harlem because they didn’t feel included in those spaces. And you would think the creation of these companies would make all of the other people realize, like, oh, we’re excluding these groups of people. But it did not. It did not.
So then you have the ballet elitists that are just longtime fans are like, well, you’re being you’re causing segregation in the ballet community. I’m like, the ballet community was already segregated. We just highlighted it.
[00:33:02.370] – Sequoia
Right. We’re trying to fill that in and fill in that space.
[00:33:06.900] – TaKiyah
Yes. So there’s still a lot of growth to do so. I think on the Brown Girls end, we’re celebrating. We try and celebrate the wins all the time. But in ballet as a whole, we’re still a step one.
[00:33:16.500] – Sequoia
Gotcha, gotcha. I think one of the things that I’ve heard you say a few times throughout this conversation is just how the girls have really picked up the mantle and just kind of ran with the idea of “we’re here, we want to be seen and we refuse to be ignored.” And I love that. I love the fact that they are taking up for themselves. Right. And so I wanted to know I think that’s a great legacy for Brown Girls Do Ballet. And I just wanted to know, when you hear people talk about Brown Girls Ballet or Do Ballet or when people think of Brown Girls Do Ballet, what is the lasting legacy that you want then to take away from it?
[00:33:58.830] – TaKiyah
I just, right before this conversation, I was interviewing a girl for our mentorship program and she’s thirteen. And she asked me a very similar question, which is so funny. I’m not used to kids asking me questions. You know what? Just the bonds and the like sisterhood. I never thought of Brown Girls, internally, being a sorority up until maybe about six months ago when somebody pitched it to me, like basically saying you guys have created a sorority. And I’m like, no, oh wait, we kind of had. We kind have. I’ve always called the girls my brown ballerina army because I am not a former dancer who has in any way the ability to change ballet. But these girls absolutely do. And the reason that they do is because they bonded together. Covid presented a new reality for a lot of organizations and they had to find out how to work in a digital space. We were OK during the pandemic because we’d always operated like this. We were already using Google Hangouts and Zoom and things like that because that’s how our girls meet each other. We have girls all over the world at this point. And it’s hard for you to think of a space where everybody can come together and learn from each other, so we were already kind of operating in this space and it made it really easy for us to, well, I don’t even want to say the word transition. We didn’t have to. But because of that, the girls had already bonded together.
They talk about where they’re going to go in the summer, what place does are safe spaces, who they took class from, who was really good and made them feel great about themselves, what shoes they should wear, because my foot is wider as a Black woman than than your foot over here. What tight…who has brown tights, where I got my brown pointe shoes from, all of these different things, they were already kind of together in sharing information in that way.
And so when I think about Brown Girls in the future and us getting past the conversation about diversity in ballet, because my hope is that one day that won’t be a conversation; when I think about equity and how many of these girls will need assistance and each other along the way, one of the phrases that we use internally a lot is community over competition. Our girls have become a community and they work together. And so in a few years, when we’re past the diversity conversation, because they’ve built this sisterhood, this sorority, they’re going to be working in a way that’s even more powerful.
These girls are going off to college and they’re like minoring and dance, but majoring in business or they’re minoring in arts management and majoring in arts management, minoring in this thing over here. These are the people who are going to be running these larger ballet organizations that have come through our program. That is what I’m looking forward to the most, because, number one, they’ve been inside. They know the struggles, they have the history. They’ve actually been in the trenches dancing. But then also they’ve created this web and this network. They created their own brown ballerina LinkedIn, and they’re going to be running all this.
[00:36:58.960] – Sequoia
[00:37:00.300] – TaKiyah
That’s the part that excites me the most, so and then I can retire and go back to knowing nothing about ballet and sit at home. So that’s the part that’s the legacy that I’m hoping, that I know is going to happen
[00:37:17.060] – Sequoia
Nice. And so as a follow up to that, when people think of TaKiyah Wallace, what legacy, what lasting legacy do you want to leave?
[00:37:27.550] – TaKiyah
I don’t think you sent that to me in our questions ahead of time. Umm…That’s hard. If nothing else, I know that I’m scrappy. If I don’t feel like this space was for me or because I didn’t feel like the space is for me, I found ways to make it work for me and I found ways to work for it. So I, in the grand scheme of things, I want people to feel like I was resilient and relentless, but I feel like those words are even too fancy for me, and so I just want to say scrappy and I feel like in the grand scheme of things, one thing that has always been important to me, whether it be in my history in education or even as a photographer and even in the ballet space, I’ve always wanted the young people under me to see themselves as being valuable where they are. I wanted them to feel valuable. In my classroom I wanted them to feel valuable. As a photographer, I shoot a lot of Black families. I’ve always wanted them to feel like they had a face in this space. You go pick up a frame at Walgreens or wherever. Those faces don’t look like yours, but I wanted families to feel like they had framable faces, like Hallmark card faces, right, because they do and families look different. So I’ve always wanted that across everything.
And so I just, I want people to feel like I made them feel as though they had something to contribute to that space. Even if it was a short lived experience. You started dancing and it’s not for you. Fine. What is for you? We have this conversation all the time with our girls who are transitioning out of high school. You don’t want to dance professionally. Amazing. Fine. That’s what, you don’t want to do that. What do you want to do?
“Oh, I want to go to college and study this.” OK, great. So you have all of this dance history and you think you want to major in dance, but you also want to have something else to fall back on. How can you stay rooted in your history in dance, but also give something else back to the world? And we have those kinds of conversations. So I just want people to know that, like, I tried for them and I wanted them to feel special where they were. However, that looks.
[00:39:43.660] – Sequoia
I love it. I love it. And sorry for putting you on the spot, but I thought it would be a fantastic question for you. And I love the way that you answered it. So great job, I guess. Final thoughts, if you could step into my shoes as the interviewer, what’s the one question you would have asked yourself that I didn’t ask you?
[00:40:07.110] – TaKiyah
I don’t know what I would what you would have asked me. I guess one of the things that I get asked a lot is how have I seen changes in the industry and what those changes have been?
I definitely see brands trying, but then also I feel like a lot of things are performative. And so it’s just our idea to kind of keep going. I always like to have tunnel vision. I’m only focused on our mission and our vision and our goals. All that other foolishness that’s happening on the side is not important to me until it swerves in our lane, because I feel like if we stay on track and we do the things that we said we were going to do, everything else will fall into place. And people have no other alternative but to watch what we are doing and pay attention and learn from it. So I guess that’s what I would have expected to be asked that wasn’t asked, but I think you did a great job. Podcasts are always weird for me because I’m like, ya’ll can’t see my face.
[00:41:03.960] – Sequoia
I tried to ask questions that I figured, you don’t get asked all the time. Just so it could be more interesting for you and then for the guests, for the listeners as well. And speaking to listeners, we do have one question from our audience. And so they ask, where can they learn more about funding opportunities for underserved communities in the arts?
[00:41:25.920] – TaKiyah
So there are a few websites that are out there, but a lot of things are city specific. That’s another cool thing about Brown Girls, we’re based in Texas, but we service girls all over. But a lot of communities are kind of specific to where you live. So I would, if you’re depending on what city or state you’re in, go to your local city government site. There’s almost always an arts and culture section. In that arts and culture section, there’s probably five or six entities that are actively trying to service those communities where you can donate time or resources to them. Brown Girls is always accepting donations and we’re going to ramp up our volunteer efforts for 2021 as well. You can learn more about us at Brown Girls do ballet dot com.
[00:42:13.740] – Sequoia
Nice. And how how can people who are listening, who want to support your mission, how can they support?
[00:42:20.670] – TaKiyah
There’s a couple of different ways. Obviously, financial giving is great. Just keeping it real. That’s what keeps us going. We provide scholarships year round and that’s not how we started. So before it was OK for us to occasionally fundraise, just because we were only giving out summer intensive scholarships. But now we provide support year round and we also provide college scholarships. So, year round, you can give at browngirlsdoballet.com. But then also there are two other tracks that we are going to start really pushing out to the community.
We have our supply closet where we collect supplies for dancers that may have been impacted by anything. Covid has been a huge financial drain on dancer families. And I know a lot of people think, when you’re thinking about, just general life, especially in light of Covid, but even before that, we had a couple of major hurricanes in the South that affected a lot of our girls. When you’re young and your parents are going through financial hardships, that’s one thing. But then when it’s a huge disruption to your normal kind of life, that’s a whole other thing; especially when you’re in that sweet spot, those teenage years where everything is very self centered, like. But what about me?
[00:43:35.040] – Sequoia
[00:43:36.960] – TaKiyah
Yes. So we try and eliminate some of that for girls who have exhibited a hardship in that way. We provide pointe shoes. We have a point shoe program. And if you know anything about point shoes, you know, they can go anywhere from 60 to one hundred dollars plus per pair. Girls normally wear them for a few hours before they’re quote unquote, dead and not able to be worn again. So pointe shoes are very huge expense in the ballet world, aside from just general class tuition and private tuition for private training.
So we have our program. We have our supply closet and our supply closet. This year was obviously has grown significantly because now we’re also supplying PPE for dancers. And we upped our we had to up our tuition payments as well, just because dancers have families that have been, family members, that have been furloughed or lost their jobs, altogether. So the supply closet, our point shoe program and then also there are a lot more, well, figuring out what a return to covid land means. A lot more in person volunteer projects that we have on the books. We send out dance bags to girls that are full of all the things they need to kick off their their year. We call it Back to the Studio, was a campaign that we kicked off this year because of covid. And so we’ll have dancers are we’ll need volunteers locally to help us pack those bags and start shipping them off, because that’s just just been me. And it’s a struggle. It’s a beautiful struggle.
But then also girls, because we have so many girls on our mentorship list, it’s growing and it’s it’s going to grow significantly in 2021. We have an opportunity for former dancers, dance instructors, people who are just true artists to connect with those dancers and become mentors to them. So there’ll be a lot of different ways for people to get further involved in 2021. People have always wanted to help us, but for me it’s always kind of been a balance of time and just trying to get organized. Especially when it’s not something you planned to do when it happened to you.
But Brown Girls, as of I think three weeks ago, is actually now my full time job. So this is all I have to do now is figure out how to get these mentors where they should be.
[00:45:46.260] – Sequoia
Absolutely. And then, also, Brown Girls Do Ballet, has a collection on MochaStock.com. So if you’re looking for photos of brown girls doing ballet, you can go to MochaStock.com.
[00:45:59.840] – TaKiyah
Please go to MochaStock.com and I need to refresh that. We’ll have a conversation off the podcast.
[00:46:05.660] – Sequoia
And all the proceeds from that go to scholarships for the Brown girls who are doing ballet.
[00:46:12.780] – TaKiyah
And then Brown Girls Do, Inc, the nonprofit, we also have Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, so if you have a little girl who is more interested in the gymnast side of arts and athleticism, that is there and then we’re also in talks about developing two more legs of Brown Girls Do in 2021. So and I’ll talk more about that another day.
[00:46:35.820] – Sequoia
Definitely. I mean, I think this has been great and we would love to have you back, especially as more things come up with Brown Girls. And thank you so much, TaKiyah, for coming. Thank you for sharing…
[00:46:45.000] – TaKiyah
Thank you for having me. Thank you for having me. I believe in everything that you do. And I understand how you are trying to make this world more diverse and equitable. And just let me know if you ever need me for anything and I got you.
[00:47:01.050] – Sequoia
Aww, thank you…and, you know, the saying goes right back at you. Thank you for the important work that you do. And thank you for the work that you do for girls.
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