Moxie Leader: TaKiyah Wallace-McMillian

1. What initially attracted you to starting your own company? Was there a specific incident? Childhood? Did being a woman play a role?

As a photographer we often find personal projects to shoot during down time to keep our passion alive. Brown Girls Do Ballet was initially one of those projects for me. Brown Girls Do Ballet is to its core, rooted in the fact that I am a mom. I have a daughter who is sweet and brown and she does ballet. Before we enrolled in her current ballet program I looked all over the city for a dance program that fit our families schedule and budget. A commonality found on most of the dance school websites I happened upon was that there were no babies that looked like mine. She didn’t look like she’d fit with her short stature, big afro, and brown skin. I personally didn’t know much about ballet beyond my enjoyment of seeing Copelia for the first time in college, but I KNEW that not being able to find other faces like her on dance sites obviously wasn’t an abnormality to the masses. If you use google images and search “ballet” or “ballet dancer” you’re presented with a number of images of ballet dancers but none of them looked like her.

So I was faced with a series of questions: Where is the diversity in ballet and what does the lack thereof say to young girls like my daughter who loved the idea of being a ballerina? What does that say to her should she choose to pursue it lifelong with the hopes of being professional one day? What does a ballet dancer look like? Armed with these questions as a mom, as a photographer my initial idea was to gather a bunch of dancers who DID look like her. I set out on a personal photography mission that turned into something so much more. As I started photographing ballerinas more moms started asking me for information and sharing their own stories just like mine. We created a quick sisterhood of sorts and all I wanted to do was research and share what I’d learned. Eventually my little photography project evolved into what will hopefully soon be the premier information website for ballerinas of color.

2. Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman in your choice of career? Are there unique challenges you think only women face?

Being a woman who is a mom in any career field can be a challenge in itself. As much as this project was rooted in my desire to show my daughter girls who look like her doing what she loves, that has meant some time away from her both to travel for, shoot, and promote the project. I work primarily from home so my day is a mix of mom/wife duties and other general work and I’m rarely without my smart phone in my hand or meeting with people via Skype. Nothing bothers a mom like me more than a child pointing out to you that you’ve spent “too much time working today and not enough playing with me”. Recently I’ve had to set up work hours at home. She’s the most important person to me and her time is HER time. I never truly committed to the whole work/life balance idea until this project.

3. What does “empowerment” mean to you?

Empowerment to me is so many things. Specifically with this project, empowerment is centered around reaching back, over, and sideways to provide information, tools, and resources to a younger generation of girls who will one day change the world I live and love in. Phylicia Rashad said recently “Where the women go, the culture goes”. I want these young girls who will one day be those women to make this world more beautiful for all of us, so if we HAVE the knowledge for them to do so, why not share it even if it is just in ballet?

4. What in particular about Brown Girls Do Ballet do you think helps you empower young women across the country? What message are you trying to send?

Brown Girls Do ballet is a movement! Using the language of our movement, phrases like “Brown Ballerina” we’ve set in motion a different kind of diversity initiative. We seek to celebrate and eventually infiltrate the genre of ballet and it’s primarily European standards of what makes a beautiful ballerina. We want to show ALL Brown girls: Black, Latina, Asian, etc., that they can dance just as beautifully as their counterparts despite who they may see in primary lead roles via popular media outlets. We also seek to empower by providing resources, tools, and information to young dancers and their parents with everything from studio locations in their cities, to grants and scholarship opportunities. We hope to be able to introduce young dancers to other girls and women just like them through their own stories of adversity and triumph.

5. Did you have role models or mentors? How have they helped you? (Who was the most memorable one?)

It’s funny to me to answer this question because my role model and my mentor with this project both have absolutely no idea that they are such. My role model is my proud standing 4-year-old daughter who not only birthed what eventually became this movement but who shows me every day that even when you fail at something the first time, the real challenge is getting back up and trying again. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you tell your own child “don’t give up” but it’s the first thing you want to do when things don’t happen for you and your project as quickly as you’d like for them to.

My unknowing mentor has been photographer Matthew Jordan Smith who spoke at a photography conference in 2012 at which I was in attendance, on the importance of a photographer in having a personal project, something that they they wanted to see completed, and following through. I’d already started the project before I heard him speak but a fire was ignited in a different way after that day. He forced me into an uncomfortable space of acknowledging that my cute project wasn’t supposed to be just that. It was supposed to be more and I had to figure out on my own what the goal or direction would be and follow through. (Thanks MJS!)

6. What worked (or did not work) for you that would be good advice for someone else coming up in their career?

Whew! This one is by far the easiest for me to answer. I started this project with zero dollars and zero cents. I was never a good Girl Scout, I sold no cookies. I’m not good at “the sell”. I don’t like to solicit donations even when I desperately need them. In the past year I’ve spent a good portion of my savings on materials and attorney’s fees because I’m stubborn and I felt like the spirit of my feminist ancestors wanted me to make this happen by any means necessary. What did NOT work for me was refusing to ask for help when I needed it. We want to protect our projects, they are our babies. This fierce protection leads us to not let those who offer to help in. I have been fortunate enough to find some amazing support along the way and they have refused to let me carry the weight alone, but it took me a while to trust. We are now finally seeking donations and eventual Non-Profit status to be able to put funds in the the proper place to keep this movement going and to also be able to provide scholarships to dancers and grants to small studios. While you cannot allow everyone in it is okay to call on those you trust for help sometimes.

7. What rules do you live by or if you have a life motto?

I have a word that I live by. I read it one day and it immediately summed up what I would like my life’s work to mean. It’s a Greek term: meraki. It means to do something with soul, creativity, or love. To put “something of yourself” into what you’re doing. I want to leave it all on the floor when I go. Just like the dancers I hope to inspire.

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