Shannon Harkins, a 13-year-old ballerina from Silver Spring, MD will dance in The Washington’s Ballet production of the Nutcracker. Shannon has performed in the Nutcracker for 7 years. Her roles have included everything from a soldier to now playing a Chinese girl in this month’s production. But Shannon has her heart set on something bigger. She wants a corps role, like a snowflake, and then a Sugar Plum Fairy.
But being an African-American ballerina comes with sacrifice and the Harkins family knows that all too well.
Shannon’s parents, Juli Harkins, a project officer for a substance-abuse and mental health agency, Derrick, pastor at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church realizes the challenges of being an African American ballet dancer. But they’ve stuck by their daughter for the last 8 years. With role models such as Misty Copepland, the Harkins believe that their daughter is on the right track.
Outside ballet, Shannon says, she lives “pretty much a normal life.” Her friends thinks it’s neat that she dances like Misty Copeland. And she has friends from ballet class. “I’ve always felt included,” Shannon says. But “I wish the diverse ballet world was a lot larger.” One problem she sees: “the fact that a lot of people think ballet is for white people or Europeans.”
Its a sentiment that’s been especially true of ballet insiders, says Septime Webre, who has been artistic director of the Washington Ballet for 14 years. In an art form that draws from European court traditions, where uniformity is part of the aesthetic, dancers of color have a hard time.
“The top 20 companies in America generally suffer from preconceived notions of what beauty is; what a prince looks like and what a ballerina looks like,” Webre says. “As directors break out of their own preconceived notions of what those are, they will begin to promote dancers who are coming into the corps of ballet.” He points to his casting of Brooklyn Mack as a lead in the ballet’s recent production of “Giselle.” Dancers show the audience their “idealized selves,” and it’s a view that’s often too narrow for white directors, he says.