When professional photographer TaKiyah Wallace posted a casting call on her Facebook business page in 2014, looking for dancers of color, she had no idea that initial photography project would eventually blossom into Brown Girls Do Ballet, a 501(c)3 registered nonprofit with ambassadors throughout the U.S. and Canada, dedicated to assisting young dancers in their ballet training, providing scholarships for dance study and offering grants to studios in low socioeconomic populations. "I thought, 'Maybe I'll turn this into a calendar,'" Wallace remembers thinking after her initial photo shoot in Dallas. "Moms were crying, saying, 'You don't understand how important this is!' I really didn't."
Three years later, Brown Girls Do Ballet is an international organization with a home base in Dallas. Wallace has 43 "ambassadors," or mentees, who are paired with professional dancer mentors. "But the girls, the mentees, do so much more than learn from other people," explains Wallace. For example, the ambassadors, who are ages 10 to 17 and are active on social media, often field questions from other girls seeking advice. "They'll get inboxed, 'I live where you live. Where do you dance? I aspire to be at the level you're at,'" says Wallace. "We empower them to be able to share information. One of the things I preach is, 'Community over competition.'"
Though Wallace knew little about dance before putting her own daughter, Charlie, in classes and forming Brown Girls Do Ballet, she's learned the power of dance firsthand.
1. Dance is a field ripe for mentorship Wallace says that when she first started BGDB, she reached out to professional dancers for answers to dance-specific questions she was getting from younger students. "It would be crickets," she says. "Dancers feel like there's so little that they can offer." But Wallace soon convinced them that their advice was valuable. "Sometimes it's as simple as: 'My teacher told me for this solo I need flesh-toned tights. I don't know where to find flesh-toned tights in my area.' If you're a dancer in that area, you know that answer." Sometimes the queries she receives are more complex, like: I've been attending this studio since I was 6 years old, and I went to the School of American Ballet this summer. I assessed the room and decided I'm not ready to dance at this caliber if I don't leave my studio. How do I make that transition without burning that bridge?
"I cannot answer this question," says Wallace. "But a professional like [BalletMet dancer] Rachael Jones can. It's a small but significant service that professionals are providing that wasn't really offered before."
2. Dance instills discipline "More than anything, if you can take a girl and give her the experience of the discipline that dance offers—it doesn't even matter what form of dance you're taking," says Wallace. "So many things are involved in that physically." Wallace herself began taking adult ballet classes recently, "so I could know what was going on."
"I love the fact that I can't count," she says. "I bought this ballet book, and it would say, 'Do an arabesque.' But could my body do an arabesque? Me taking class is what really made me understand what dance can do for a person. It keeps you physically fit, and there's a level of discipline and confidence that dancers exude, whether they know it or not."
3. Dance is therapy "Dance gives you so much, and it allows you, in a brief moment, to be away from every crazy thing that's going on this world—to be present with what you're doing with your body and the music," says Wallace. "It's a luxury that not many girls are offered."
Good thing she's here to help change that.