Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre- Interview with Victoria Watford
By Meg St-Esprit McKivigan
“I always was the only little Black girl in my ballet program… there was one mixed race teen that I looked up to for the first few years, but that was it.”
Victoria Watford, Corps de Ballet dancer for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater since 2016 and the only Black female dancer in the troupe, has been dancing since she was 4 years old. Growing up in Cleveland, she was aware of the racial disparity in ballet, but she didn’t think about it all the time. “Everyone is different in their own way, and that is how I was different.”
As an adult, though, she has begun to process more of her racial and cultural identity as it relates to ballet. In the spring of 2017, Watford had the chance to dance with the Dance Theatre of Harlem when they traveled to Pittsburgh for a series of events. “It was crazy dancing with so many people who looked like me — it was so impactful,” Watford said.
Sharing this with the other dancers, they all connected with Watford over the issue. They shared that they understood why she felt like that, because they too had all been the only children of color in a ballet class at one point or another.
One of the main reasons for the racial disparity in ballet is the cost of training. It takes years to make a ballet dancer, along with a lot of financial dedication by parents. “I watched many friends stop dancing,” Watford said. Due to the income gap in America for people of color, it is often more difficult to commit their child to an expensive activity such as ballet. In Pittsburgh alone, the annual median income of Black families is nearly $25,000 behind White families.
Another reason for the lack of diverse representation in ballet is a long-held belief that Black bodies weren’t “suited” for ballet, or that their skin tone altered the visual appeal of dancing. Some famous Black ballerinas, such as Raven Wilkinson in the 1950’s, were required to wear very light pancake makeup to “preserve” the visual aspect of a performance. These beliefs and barriers kept many dancers from the artform well through the 20th century, and the lack of representation on stage crushed the imagination of many little Black girls dreaming of ballet. The Dance Theatre of Harlem was created specifically to provide a space for dancers of color in reaction to the oppressive environment of ballet as a whole.
That is changing, though slowly, in Pittsburgh. Watford urged children, “If you love it, you find a way. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater is incredible with their scholarship fund. They will pay for everything.” The new group of students is also more diverse. ”If I had been a little Black girl here, I would have felt so at home.”
Alena Lumsden, age 7 is excited about her classes at PBT. Starting as a younger child at Hope Academy in East Liberty, which is an income-based program designed as an introduction to the arts, Lumsden now dances weekly at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater along with her older sister Anela. Her younger brother and another older sister currently attend Hope Academy.
“I like seeing Black ballerinas on stage. It makes me proud and happy to know I am not the only Black person in the room,” Lumsden said. Her mom, Lanae, also values the diverse setting and representation for her children that the program offers. She is hopeful to enroll one of her children in the special needs community outreach class offered through PBT this fall.
Eva and Ava Dominick, age 10, have been dancing at PBT for almost six years. The twins have worked hard over that time to improve their ballet skills, and they take their classes very seriously. Their parents, Sharlene and Abdul Dominick, moved the girls to PBT after a negative racial experience at a North Hills ballet studio.
They are tall for their age, and strong, and do not always fit the mold of the typical petite ballerina that is most often highlighted in American and European ballet. Sharlene shares that their family has always instilled confidence in the girls, made them aware of their Blackness, their beauty, and their strength. The girls have always noticed the Whiteness of ballet, but particularly the last two years have begun to point out to their parents the increasing number of Black and Brown students in their PBT classes.
“There are girls of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian descent also.” Sharlene notes that sometimes there does appear to be tension among parents of students, as different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds meld together in the parent waiting room. “The girls, though, they have fun. Kids are kids, and they all get along. Their instructor holds them all to the same standard, and they are all under the same intense instruction.”
When asked what advice she would give to these young girls, Watford had these words of encouragement. “Never give up, just because it seems like you don’t belong, doesn’t mean that you don’t. Just because you don’t look like everyone else- your skin, hair, body type- doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent. It very much depends on where you are. In Pittsburgh the girls are a lot skinnier, in other companies there are more muscular girls. The type of dancing we do here, it tends to slim people out. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision or think, ‘I need to look like them.’ What really matters is the talent, heart, and passion. You can see heart when people are dancing.”
As for Watford, right now her future is in Pittsburgh. After having just completed a series of shows at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, she is now beginning work on “West Side Story,” which will run at the Benedum Center this May.
“I will be one of the Shark girls, and will be singing and dancing in some of the performances.”
As for Eva, Ava, and Alena, all have hopes to continue in Victoria’s footsteps, with her as a role model to look up to.
Videographer: Christian Lockerman / Courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre