I am at least two decades older than Misty Copeland, but like her, I was one of the little brown girls studying at the American Ballet Theatre school as a child. So, it's not shocking that when I learned American Ballet Theatre had named Misty Copeland as the first African-American female principal dancer in the company's 75-year history, my eyes teared up and my glasses fogged over as I read about this momentous occurrence. While I was reading, a huge sob made its way out of my mouth and I was catapulted back to the early 1970s, when I first started pointe class as a black student at ABT.
As one of the few students of color in the beginner pointe class, I remembered trying out for the advanced level scholarship class, not getting in, and having my Russian teacher, Madame Meriniva, whisper in my 12-year-old ear, "Don't give up, I saw your audition, you have strong back. This is good!"
I never became a full-fledged professional dancer, but my "strong back" has served me well as a lifelong lover of dance and amateur performer. By my mid-teens, I started taking classes at Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theater of Harlem, where diversity reigned supreme. Seeing Misty Copeland, a black woman who had also been a girl passionate about dance, finally recognized as a principal dancer at ABT made me yell triumphantly after wiping away tears of joy.
Ever since I took that first ballet/tap class at age four, dance has been my friend, my passion, my ace in the hole. Growing up in New York City's Washington Heights, dance was a strong link I had with my mother—an amazingly creative artist, dancer and high school teacher.
"Time to clean the apartment. Let's turn on some Sam Cooke," my mother used to say. We danced as we cleaned our Riverside Drive apartment. At times, we would take a break from cleaning and our energy would be consumed with a dance challenge. As a little girl, I would simply try to mimic my mother's dance moves, but by the time I was a teenager, our cleaning dance duel break would include me showing her some of the latest dances, with Michael Jackson providing background music instead of Sam Cooke.
"That's right: shake those hips, show me some moves," my mom would say as we broke out in spontaneous dancing on our living room floor. By the time an album finished, the apartment was clean and we were exploding into peals of laughter. Those memories are more special now that I'm 56 and I've been without my mother for almost 18 years.
I lost her and my grandmother in a tragic car accident when I was 38. At the time, I was a young married mom with a 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. The shock was so great that I frequently went down to the basement of my home in Jamaica, Queens, turned on my CD player, and moved with all my might to Bob Marley's "Exodus" and the soundtrack from "The Bodyguard" by Whitney Houston. I needed a kinetic release while my heart broke with grief and sadness after losing the two most important women in my life. At my darkest time, dance remained a strong part of my personal coping mechanism.
Starting back in my teen years, dance helped me to fit in. There were many times when my "Cool Black Girl" card was questioned. To a lot of my peers, I looked like a nerdy, smart girl who went to Hunter College High School and carried tons of books and a huge bag filled with leotards and leg warmers—until the music came on.
Relying on my skill set—years of studying ballet, modern, jazz, West-African, Caribbean and even flamenco—gave me confidence. Once, while at a party and moving my body to the rhythms of Parliament Funkadelic, I heard a girl say, "She talks like a white girl, but she sure moves like a black one." Even the "Oreo" moniker, thrown my way, crumbled once I got into the zone on the dance floor.
By the time I began college in 1978, as a shy, first-quarter freshman at Northwestern University, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Northwestern University Dance Ensemble and Nayo Dancers, two undergraduate on-campus groups. You'd think a New York City native and longtime storyteller enrolled in the Medill School of Journalism would have lots to say, yet when I first arrived on campus in Illinois, I was shaky and nervous—except when it came to dancing.
I met my first college boyfriend at a short film shoot that I performed in. It was directed by a woman who was a senior radio/television/film major who found out I could dance and said, "Great, I need some good female dancers for the party scene. Wear something New York and funky with spike heels." At the shoot, I could tell that the cute sophomore guy with the curly Afro, who was also an extra in the scene, was a little bit in awe of how the quiet girl from NYC was gyrating her hips with such fervor when the music came on. We ended up dating for a little while, and since he was one of the DJs on the college radio station, he taught me about adapting my voice for radio. Later, I also became a DJ on the station. The shy freshman morphed into a woman juggling writing for the college newspaper, spinning records on Northwestern's airwaves and dancing in groups on campus.
Today, instead of dancing in amateur and semi-professional dance groups, I dance Zumba at my local all-ladies gym. I fit Zumba classes in amidst teaching part-time at elementary schools and freelance writing. My son is now 25 and my daughter is 22. Both are heading toward creating their own lives and careers. I've been married to my husband for 28 years and since we are now semi-empty nesters, we're no longer working our lives around our kids' schedules.
I love that the sweat I create when working out in Zumba class is from exercise and not just another hot flash. On the days I decide to take Zumba, I power through physical annoyances like plantar fasciitis pain in my heels and minor arthritis in one shoulder. I pack my exercise bag with spandex pants, a sports bra, a T-shirt and sneakers, pull my old mini-van out of my Jamaica, Queens, driveway and head to my gym in Valley Stream, N.Y.
After so many years of chauffeuring my kids to swim, tennis, play dates and school, it's liberating to be commuting for my own interests. When I take a Zumba class, I don't feel like someone's wife, mother, teacher, boss or editor. I love how alive this class makes me feel. When I go, I'm just a black, Jamerican woman, with a bit of smoked Irish in my family tree. I fit right in with a class of 35 to 60 multi-generational and multi-ethnic women as we laugh and shake our hips to salsa, reggae, soca, Bollywood or hip-hop music as it flows out of the gym dance studio speakers. For the price of an annual gym membership, we move sensually to the rhythmic music and let the base transport us to a place where no one cares how old you are or whether your workout clothes are fabulous.
There are times (about mid-class) when my 56-year-old muscles finally warm up that I make a few moves that even surprise me, as well as some of the younger classmates and instructors. Muscle memory takes over and a few of my years fade. The ability to let go and let the music lead us is a universal liberation. I stop thinking about the 15 pounds I'd like to lose or whether I need to re-apply my hair color. I just move my body in my own way. I will never be as slim as I was in my 20s, but executing a move with flair or having one of my fellow classmates yell "Get it, girl!" is a positive vibe that lasts for hours after the workout.
I was one of the little brown girls who studied ballet at American Ballet Theatre when none of the principal dancers looked like me. I'm glad my passion lived on to see my image reflected at the Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey and several other companies—and now, finally, at The American Ballet Theatre. I have never questioned or regretted the large role that dance has played in my life, and as long as my body cooperates, I have no plans to let it go. I will always be a dancer in my heart.