As a young girl in the 1990s, I don’t remember seeing many Black ballerinas. I knew they existed, but they weren’t well known. This is before Misty Copeland became the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. At the time, dance was my life, but I was always the only Black girl in class. I knew there were other kids like me out there, but I didn’t know where. Seeing the new Netflix film, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker would have been a gift for young me.
The film focuses on The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, the brainchild of prolific Black performer Debbie Allen. Not only does it show Black kids that they can be dancers, it shows us a behind-the-scenes look at how such a grand show is made.
Many of us know Debbie Allen because of her roles on Grey’s Anatomy. Some people may remember her as Lydia, the fiery dance teacher from Fame the movie and TV show. Dance has always been her passion, but because of systemic racism in the ballet community, she was forced to make her own opportunities. Allen started the Debbie Allen Dance Academy for kids to have access to dance that they may not have otherwise. DADA, as everyone calls it, is a non-profit that offers scholarships. It’s one way she creates access for more kids to learn to love dance, or for kids who love dance but can’t afford lessons. Dance lessons are often very expensive, which creates more barriers, especially for Black kids.
Early on in Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, Debbie Allen explains that the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker isn’t a Black version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It takes the essence and spirit of The Nutcracker and adds some flavor to it. This version gives viewers exposure to styles of dance that aren’t ballet. There is a Bollywood number, a flamenco routine and even a tap number. Unless you’re already in the dance world, you may not realize what else is out there. But even though there are other styles of dance, ballet is still front and center. The Nutcracker is arguably one of the most famous and financially lucrative ballets to perform. This is why Allen has made it a staple to her school; it’s guaranteed money, which allows them to continue on their mission. The “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker” is their biggest fundraiser, making up the bulk of their financial efforts.
Ballet is slowly making changes to their standards for performers. Misty Copeland has certainly brought more attention to the style than in previous generations. But for many Black girls who love to dance, ballet still feels like an unattainable dream.
“I never thought of an African-American dancer — I thought of a white dancer in a tutu and pointe shoes. If you Google ‘ballet dancer,’ that’s what comes up,” dancer and DIYer Sydnee Carroll told FiveThirtyEight back in 2015. A similar sentiment is shared in the film when Kylie Jefferson, a star DADA student, talks about body image issues in ballet, especially for Black women.
“The craft that chose me was not created in my image,” she says, acknowledging the discrimination that many Black ballerinas face for their body shape. “When I’m in the ballet world, mostly everyone is pretty thin,” DADA student April Watson shares. “Everything is so particular in ballet.”
One of the best parts of Dance Dreams is that it focuses on the young children who make up the production. Rehearsal footage is intercut with interviews with Allen, her family and DADA staff and teachers. We always talk about how much representation matters, and it’s abundantly clear watching this. Sure there are kids of all races and ethnicities at DADA, but the overwhelming majority of the students are Black. Same with the teachers.
“If a child sees themselves reflected in the studio, they’re going to be more comfortable, and they’re probably going to continue their training more,” former school administrator for the Dance Theatre of Harlem Kenya Rodriguez told FiveThirtyEight in 2015.
All but two of the teachers we see in Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker are Black. It would be great to see one of the school’s Black ballet teachers, but it’s not a deal breaker. We also get to see legendary tap dancer Savion Glover choreograph a special routine for the show. Also featured is Lauren Anderson, the first Black principal dancer for the Houston Ballet. The doc features many, and all but two of them are Black.
Several of the teen dancers are aspiring professionals and talk of the hardships they know they’ll face. JoAnn is an incredible dancer, but she’s realizing that the world of professional dance may be elusive. As a low income student, there are certain financial barriers she has to overcome. Her mom talks about the financial struggle of allowing her to participate in things like intensives and other programs. Because she didn’t get a scholarship for a summer intensive at Alvin Ailey (a prominent company for dancers of color) in New York City — it would have cost upwards of six or seven thousand dollars.
While it’s a minor footnote to one dancer’s story in Dance Dreams, the financial cost of dancing is something worth discussing. I remember the stress my parents went through every year when I was in dancing school. And I never had professional aspirations, I just loved doing it. They spent hundreds of dollars on classes, costumes, new shoes, dance pictures, you name it. I was supremely lucky that my parents moved mountains to make that happen. But I know that a lot of kids, especially kids of color, don’t have that luxury.
In a 2015 piece for FiveThirtyEight, writer Abby Abrams tackles how cost prohibitive ballet can be for kids of color. In the article, she does research into the cost of training a ballerina over 15 years (ages 3-18.) And it is astounding. By her estimate, to train a girl to be a ballerina over 15 years at top tier schools and programs, it can cost upwards of $120,000. This includes things like shoes and clothing, but doesn’t account for transportation to class and such. Schools like DADA and Dance Theatre of Harlem provide scholarships for kids who can’t afford to pay. But those scholarships don’t account for all the other costs. I can understand why they didn’t go into it more in Dance Dreams, but it would be interesting to hear what the teachers and staff have to say on the subject.
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker gives viewers an intimate look into what it takes to pull off a live show. As an audience, you’re only seeing the final product. Kids watching the doc will see just how hard dancing really is, which can give them a new appreciation for performers. But it also shows an intimate look at the struggle to “make it” in the dance world and how difficult it can be. Especially for Black kids, and other kids of color who may not even know such things are possible for them.
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