“I’m a soloist for the American Ballet Theatre [ABT]. I was the first person in my family who was ever interested in dance, or fine art of any kind for that matter—I came from a very humble beginning in San Pedro, California. My family didn’t have very much money, so ballet wasn’t even on my radar; I just found it randomly when I was 13 at a Boys & Girls Club. We were practicing in a basketball court in gym clothes with some old socks on. Even though it terrified me at first, I found that I really liked it. The local ballet teacher that taught the class told me that she'd never seen someone so capable who hadn't any knowledge of dance, and then told me that I could be a professional. I remember, I actually laughed because I had no idea what that even meant. But I ended up moving in with her family and trained with them for three years. Then, when I was 16, I moved to Torrance, California to train at a more advanced studio, and by 19, I joined the American Ballet Theatre in New York. It all happened so fast—it was pretty unheard of that someone could train for so few years and become a professional at one of the most elite dance companies in the United States.
Finding ballet gave me passion for the first time in my life. I was always very shy and just wanted to fit in; I never day dreamed about what I wanted to be when I grew up. But dancing gave me a connection to my personality that made me grow. My mission became to bring dance to the modern generation. I never dreamed of being promoted to a soloist—or being a role model—but I started to get such positive feedback from the black community... I felt like I was representing them in the ballet world. Prince reached out to me [to perform with him], and we ended up working together for four years. He called me and was like, ‘I think you’re extremely gifted, and I love the fact that you’re a black woman and you’re doing all of these amazing things. I would love to work with you.’ We shot the video for his cover of Crimson and Clover. We performed at Madison Square Garden and all over Europe—it was an entirely different audience than the Metropolitan Opera House. That opened so many opportunities. Now, I’m publishing a memoir [Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina], and I have a contract with Under Armour. It’s mind-boggling.
But joining ABT also made me much more aware of my body and of my skin color. In 2001, I was the only black woman in a company of 80 dancers. I had never thought about that growing up, but I suddenly felt very rare and started worrying, ‘Am I going to make it?’ There had never been a black woman who was also a principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. On top of that, I had to accept that it was OK to look like a woman and be a ballerina. I have breasts and a butt, which is not the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s aesthetic of the feminine, soft ballerina. Training is harder now, so our bodies are more athletic. It wasn't until I owned the fact that I was different that everything started to happen for me.
Every single day became about commitment. I dance every morning from 10:15 to 11:45, and rehearsals are from Tuesday through Saturday, from noon to seven. They say that if you miss a day of class, and it takes three days to get your body back to the way it was. I started learning how to eat for health—I can’t just drink soda and eat empty calories and still maintain a dancer’s body. I still eat whatever I want, it’s just about moderation. But I don’t eat red meat anymore—just fish.
I need to make sure to take care of my skin, too, because I’m almost never wearing makeup. I’ve been a Proactiv user since I was 19. I love it, but there’s something in it that bleaches my towels! Backstage, I use Neutrogena Makeup Wipes. And at night, I love Clinique Moisture Surge Overnight Mask because it’s heavier than most moisturizers. I feel awful when I travel, so as soon as I get back to my hotel room, I put on Bliss Triple Oxygen Instant Energizing Mask. It foams up and looks crazy, but when I’m done I feel really hydrated.
My everyday beauty routine is basically putting my hair in a bun and wearing lotion on my face. We wear so much makeup on stage that if we wore it during rehearsals, too, our skin would hate us. And the buns are pretty awful on our hair. We use so many bobby pins—it’s insane how many cases of bobby pins I have—and I get a lot of hair breakage. One trick I’ve learned is to use conditioner instead of hairspray to make my hair stay back—I use John Freida Brilliant Brunette Liquid Shine Conditioner, and also the Brilliant Brunette Liquid Shine Shampoo to wash it.
Since I’m usually not wearing any makeup, my eyebrows are the most important to me—they need to look good. I see Irina at John Barrett Salon to wax and tweeze them. She’s amazing. I had a panic attack when she had her first baby—I was like ‘When are you gonna be back?’ [Laughs] At home, I fill in my eyebrows with MAC Eye Brows in Spiked. It’s not very harsh. I tried eyebrow gel, but I realized I don’t need it. And gel can flake, too. But I always keep an eyebrow brush in my purse.
Sometimes I’ll use the eyebrow pencil as eyeliner. But really it’s about the lashes. On stage, I wear false lashes from Duane Reade—they’re the best false lashes I’ve found. If I’m going to a gala, I’ll use the thinner brown version, because they’re not as drag-queen-y and harsh. But if I’m just going out to dinner or something, I’ll put on Maybelline Full N’ Soft mascara. It’s very black.
On my skin, I wear Neutrogena SkinClearing Mineral Powder, and for bronzer, MAC Mineralize Skinfinish in a few shades darker than my skin tone. I’ve been using MAC Powder Blush in Peachykeen for, like, 10 years. It’s my favorite. But I also love Clinique Chubby Stick Moisturizing Lip Colour Balm for my lips and cheeks. I have every color, but Chunky Cherry Number 5 is my favorite. It’s what I’m wearing right now. Otherwise, I like neutral, natural colors on my lips, like Dior Addict Lipstick in Beige Dandy.
I swear by Crest Whitening Strips, too. They work! I use them very rarely, but I love them. I also moisturize my body like crazy. I like something simple like Olay Moisturizing Lotion for Sensitive Skin. And I have to keep everything shaved. I think some dancers wax, but for the most part we shave. My favorite razor is the Gillette Venus Embrace—it has this moisturizing gel built into it, which is nice because I don’t use shaving cream, just soap.
In terms of fragrance, I wear Polo Ralph Lauren for men. It’s pretty strong, but I love it. One of my dance partners was wearing it years ago, and I asked him what it was and I’ve been wearing it ever since. I keep Dove deodorant in my purse for when I’m in the studio for between-rehearsal touch-ups when I’m a little... ‘ew.’ [Laughs]
It’s funny, you would think that ballerinas must get a lot of pedicures and manicures, but we’re not allowed to wear polish on stage. Plus, we actually think of our calluses as trophies. We work so hard for them, we don’t want them taken away—they’re like armor. Just standing in pointe shoes hurts your feet like crazy, so imagine dancing in them for eight hours a day. I was trained to not wear padding in my shoes so that I could better articulate my toes, they bend to the shoes. I go through a pair of pointe shoes nearly every day. We can go through up to ten a week! When I finish a pair, I sign them and American Ballet Theatre sells them on their website."
—as told to ITG