Presented by The Washington Ballet Jeté Society
Story by Liesel Schmidt | Photography by Magdalena Papaiouannou
It may not be a conscious thing, but when most people picture a ballerina, they envision a certain type. They see in their mind’s eye a certain build, a certain attitude…even a certain race. Unfortunately, even in times as progressive as these, race is still very much a factor in ballet. Seeing a face of color in the most renowned ballet companies is a rare thing, and those who have achieved success enough to join their number have fought hard to get there. For these individuals, there is much to be proud of. They are examples to us all—but especially to those in their communities, to those younger than themselves who are watching—that nothing is impossible to anyone with a dream.
I’m proud to be a dancer of color, but it hasn’t been easy.
For Nardia Boodoo, ballet was a dream that came to her at a young age when she began taking weekly dance classes in elementary school. She may have been rough around the edges at the age of 14 when she auditioned for ballet at the Baltimore School for the Arts, her potential for greatness was recognized and the tiny dancer was on her way. From there, she went on to train at The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, dancing in the corps as a Dryad. “As I bourréed (a type of French folk dance characteristically danced with quick, skipping steps) off stage during the last show, I felt so happy. In that moment, I was inspired, and it sparked my insatiable need to be onstage,” Boodoo recalls with a smile.
That insatiable need drove her on, despite the fact that she didn’t look like everyone else on stage. The daughter of an Indian from Trinidad and Tobago and an African American, Boodoo grew up as a minority within a minority community, being one of the few people of color in a Hasidic Jewish community in Baltimore. Even so, she grew up feeling included and welcomed, living in a peaceful place and going to a school that was diverse in race and culture. For Boodoo, her race was never a reason to squelch her dreams. Instead, it gave her even more purpose, strengthening her resolve to be successful and make a difference in each of the companies she worked with. As a member of The Washington Ballet since 2017, she’s hoping that she can influence a change that will have lasting impact.
"I know what I am capable of and when I don't fit the mold, I make the mold conform to me because I love to dance. I could never imagine myself doing anything else."
“I’m proud to be a dancer of color, but it hasn’t been easy. I've always had to prove that I could do it and that I could get my technique together and be a professional. Once I got into a company, I found myself having to prove that I needed to be cast. It’s a lot to tackle, and it gets tiresome. I have met many talented dancers and made friends from various companies all over the world. While I am always thrilled to see them succeed, it's also a bit disheartening to watch them ascend through the ranks so much easier than I have. Their image is the standard yet I always seem to be held to a higher standard. Perhaps it's because ballet was never created for a girl that looks like me, but I have never let that slow me down. I know what I am capable of and when I don't fit the mold, I make the mold conform to me because I love to dance. I could never imagine myself doing anything else."
Nevertheless, Boodoo has great hope that every step to change will eventually open the doors to more diversity. “Brown women have innate rhythm and movement quality, and we represent the demographics of the city. Our presence alone breaks down the stereotype that brown girls can't do ballet. We can do it, and we do it very well. Dancing in a corps de ballet doesn't mean that we have to look alike in every dimension; it means that we have the ability to move in the same way and work together,” she says. “TWB has verbally praised me and promotes my messages about supporting racial diversity on social media. This is all very new for them and it's a step in the right direction. They have set the stage and the ballet community is looking at us as the model. I hope I can continue to help TWB to become leaders in implementing a reimaged ballet community.”