iamballet: amber pickens

DZ7T2452_e words by pholesha johnson

 

bloom where you are planted

Like most dancers, Amber Pickens' day begins early and ends late, very late. But her dedication and commitment to her craft is how she expresses herself, so the length of her day is never a concern, "I feel free when I dance, it's an escape and a way of praise — I dance for me and God — it's my release,” Pickens explains.

“At an early age my mom put me in dancing and acting because I was always moving around,” says Pickens. But while Pickens favored acting and had big dreams of being a movie star, it was during the summer of her fifth grade year when she attended The Debbie Allen Dance Academy Intensives at Texas Christian University that things shifted. “That summer I fell in love and made my commitment to dance,” says Pickens. Having realized that dance was not only a talent — but also her gift — it also brought much needed discipline and helped her better focus and realign her attitude.

 

Amber Pickens and Anthony Santos; Photo: Jamie Kraus, courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance.

 

With Pickens’ newfound dedication to dance, her appreciation for ballet blossomed even more. She became captivated with the history of ballet and was smitten with Giselle and Swan Lake and was then later accepted to the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) in Dallas, Texas. During her junior year at the HSPVA, Pickens’ finally had the opportunity to see a live performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and realized she had never seen black people perform in the way that Ailey dancers did. “The dancers looked beautiful, there were so many shades of brown, people of color and I begin to learn more of the history of Ailey and wanted to be a part of this legacy,” Pickens reflects.

As Pickens’ finishes her senior year at The Juilliard School, she has big hopes of joining a company but knows all too well that positions for black dancers are very limited. Throughout her training, Amber admits that with the deep love for her craft, it’s often paired with the tinge of racism and feels like a “Black dancer” instead of a dancer, who is black. She knows the pressure of being a black dancer is ten times greater to be recognized and is reminded of that everyday with snide comments like, ‘she did it good for a black girl.’ Pickens states, “It's sad and very heartbreaking. It's hard that we are seen different, and not being educated, but those comments make me work harder! I've been dealing with it all my life, you get use to it, but I am a woman of God, the pressure lifts me up, God is focused on the light. I am the light.”

 

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In addition to her studies at Juilliard and making plans for a professional career as a dancer, Pickens gives ode to her grandmother’s philosophy that “art belongs to the people, give back!” Paying homage to her grandmother who was a missionary in many communities, Pickens developed a nonprofit organization, Art Belongs to People (ABtP), that introduces the fundamentals of ballet and modern dance to girls during the summer. Her program exposes the art form to those who would not otherwise be privileged to ballet. “It is my responsibility as an ambassador of the arts to give back to my community and many others,” Pickens states. “I started Art Belongs to People in May 2013 in Durban, South Africa teaching praise and modern dance for two weeks. I’ve also taught modern dance at Kwa-Santi Secondary School for forty students ages 10-14 and praise dance to over a 100 church members ages 5-50 at Shalom church.

From South Africa to the most underserved community in metro south Dallas, this past summer Pickens brought ABtP home to St. Philip's School and Community Center where she attended elementary and middle school. “I held a two-week dance intensive at St. Philip’s, I want them to see my passion for my craft and become inspired to do what ‘they’ love. ABtP is reminder that everything I do in dance can be used as inspiration for children everywhere.”

With studies, auditions and planning for next year’s summer camp, Amber Pickens definitely has a story to tell — her story — she sees dance an art form, its own language, a way of communicating. She profoundly claims, ‘’I’ve always set high standards within myself that helps me learn along the way.” Even when surrounded with challenges, Amber does not see it as all negative, with conviction she states, "when a flower is blooming it doesn't look at the other flowers, it just blooms!"

 

feature photo by Chris Jones