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Nashville dancers define race with grace

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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) – From a large rehearsal space at Nashville Ballet headquarters in Sylvan Park, a group of ten women learn a new ballet for a performance planned in a matter of days.

“We come in and take a 9:15 a.m. to 11 o’clock class – we take class every morning,” says Lydia McRae, 29, company member since 2019. “Then we spend the rest of the day rehearsing for our upcoming show.”

The upcoming ballet, Other Voices, is the world premiere of the work of four choreographers noted for pushing the envelope to explore gender identity and stereotypes. The performance incorporates modern and contemporary styles of dance as it reflects on what it means to be a man or woman.

The collection of ballets will be performed February 14th, 15th and 16th at Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

The company members operate on a strict weekday schedule, similar to a full-time job. Each morning begins at 9:15am with a one-hour lunch break from 1pm to 2pm. The company members’ workday concludes at 6pm, but many go on to teach dance outside of their rigorous full-time schedules.

“Lydia and I both teach at Rejoice School of Ballet,” says Imani Sailers, 24, who’s been with the Nashville Ballet since 2017. Rejoice provides dance classes to students on a sliding scale, based on income.

“I think it’s important that [young, African American dancers] see people like us in the front of the room being able to critique them and connect with them in a way that makes them feel seen,” says Sailers. “We can provide them an example to say ‘you can be of color, you can come from a diverse background and enter into this part of the arts.’”

Sailers and McRae join long-time company member Kayla Rowser, in her 13th season with Nashville Ballet, as the three African American women in the company.

“Last year was the first season that I had another woman of color in the company with me,” says Rowser. “It was surprising how much I felt empowered just being able to look and see that because I had never had that in my professional experience in the company,” says Rowser.

Rowser has performed in lead roles within the ballet, including Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella in Paul Vasterling's Cinderella.

“There are ideas of what a ballerina should look like and that stems from a very young age and so I think it’s really powerful for us to be able to change that together,” says Rowser.

Rowser also teaches young dancers around the midstate through private lessons.

“Sometimes I may have a classroom full of non-dancers of color and I may be their first teacher in any subject at all that is a person of color,” says Rowser. “There is sort of that component for young students of color who – I can see it in their eyes that they see themselves in us.”

Each of the women came into their profession from a different track. Rowser and McRae each went straight from high school into the professional world. Sailers attended a 4-year college and pursued a career as a professional dancer after obtaining her degree.

“I had a more traditional schooling growing up [in Chicago] – I went to regular public school and my mom put me in classes,” says Sailers. “For me, the transition from student to professional was me deciding that it was just something I wanted to do and I went to college for dance.”

For McRae, growing up in Kernersville, N.C. outside Winston-Salem, choosing an intense arts high school helped set the pace for her future as a professional dancer.

“I went to an arts high school, so they put you on a track to become a professional,” says McRae, who attended North Carolina School of the Arts, now known as UNCSA.

“They don’t even advise you to go to college for dance, they say ‘go audition, find that job and just start because the career is so short,’” says McRae.

Since becoming a professional, McRae has earned her business administration degree with a minor in information technology. Rowser is currently taking classes to earn a degree in Communication.

All three women agree it takes tenacity to be a professional dancer. When asked to name the single quality professional dancing required, Rowser chose resilience, McRae chose confidence and Sailers chose strength.

“At the professional level, it’s missing birthdays, weddings, missing funerals,” says Rowser.

“You just have to be mentally tough and that’s hard because in order to be an artist you have to be vulnerable and a lot of that isn’t always celebrated or appropriate when you’re doing this type of work,” says Sailers.

 

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