Brown Ballerina Spotlight: Maurissa Powell
Name: Maurissa Powell
Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin
Years of Training: 10
Current Studio or Professional Company: Advanced student at School of Madison Ballet http://www.madisonballet.org/
Roles: The Nutcracker, Cinderella and A Midsummer Night's Dream, all with Madison Ballet.
Favorite Quote: "Dance is music made visible." – Mr. George Balanchine.
Social Media or Website: http://instagram.com/
When did you begin taking dance lessons? At what point did you realize it was your passion?
When I was 3 years old I was at the library with my dad and noticed a ballet class. I was fascinated and watched from outside the door,posing and copying the movements they did and I didn't want to leave. My mom got me into a ballet class right away and I've been doing it ever since! Ballet has always been my "thing" but I didn't know for sure until I was 10 years old and I was promoted from Level 2 to Level 3 at my ballet school. This meant more hours of dancing each week and I was allowed to take class with the older students and company dancers. It made me feel proud of myself and more serious about my dancing. Earning my first pair of pointe shoes was a pretty big deal too.
What influences did ballet have on your childhood? Who were your ballet influences?
Most of my toys, books, videos and TV shows I like involve ballet. I've had posters of ballerinas Gillian Murphy and Yuan Yuan Tan my whole life. I was that kid who wore a tutu’s and twirled in the grocery store aisles. For my birthday, my dad once built me a barre out of metal pipes so I could practice at home. I miss out on things like parties and team sports at school because I have class or rehearsals. At times, I am left out by friends because they assume I'm always busy. I have really great "dance friends" too! We get to perform together in front of thousands of people in beautiful costumes and hanging out backstage is really fun. My mom tries to help me balance things so I feel like I have had a good childhood. I am very active in Alpha Kappa Alpha's Emerging Young Leaders program besides ballet. I am also writing a book about diversity in ballet and I hope it will benefit my school's scholarship fund someday. I've been lucky to have a lot of ballet influences. The first real ballerina I got up close to was Genevieve Custer-Weeks, she danced in The Nutcracker, Cinderella and A Midsummer Night's Dream ballets that I've danced in. She was amazing to watch and always had time for the young kids. I spend A LOT of my free time watching dance videos on Youtube, my favorites are Michaela DePrince and Miko Fogarty- their techniques are flawless!My biggest influences have been all of my teachers at School of Madison Ballet. I grew up watching them and learning different things from each of them. W. Earle Smith is my artistic director at Madison Ballet, I really love when he teaches class and one day I hope to dance for his company while going to college. Everyone from Madison Ballet feels like family to me.
Our project focuses on highlighting unrepresented minorities in Ballet. Why do you think minorities are not well involved in this performing art? What are some of challenges you may have faced as a "brown ballerina"?
I think minority kids don't get exposed to ballet because it isn't very popular in our culture. Maybe it's the classical music or the story ballets we think are old-fashioned, weird or boring. Maybe if there were youth ballets about things we are interested in, with music more like what we like to listen to it could be more popular. Ballet training takes years and its best if you start young. When you think of ballerinas, they usually have a very thin body, light skin, and are tall. The corps (group dancers) sometimes all look exactly the same! If brown girls don't see people who look like them dancing on stage, or if they never see a ballet at all, they may never get the idea to start. Ballet is expensive. Pointe shoes can cost $100 a pair, and depending on how much you dance on them you can kill a pair in a week! There is tuition and transportation, dance clothes and tights, and you have to be every day in the studio so you can't really have a job at the same time. Summer programs are important to get better and be seen by people who might give us jobs later. These programs cost thousands of dollars and our families can't always afford to send us. I auditioned and was accepted at Milwaukee Ballet's summer program last year but couldn't go because my family couldn't pay the tuition, even with a partial scholarship. I think it is easier for boys of color; they get full scholarships because they always need more male ballet dancers and they don't have to look a certain way. Lots of little girls want to be ballerinas but boys can get teased for taking dance class.I am usually the only dancer of color in my ballet classes. At first I did feel different, I noticed I looked different from the other students when I watched us in the mirror during class and feel shy. Now I feel special because I'm different. I know there may be dancing roles I won't get because I have a different look, but I may be perfect for others for the same reason.
How do you believe the dance world has shaped you as a young woman/girl? What learning experiences can young girls gain from exposure to Ballet?
Ballet is strict and time-consuming work, so all the hours I spend have given me discipline and maturity. The exercises we do give me poise and grace in how I move. I think it helped teach me concentration skills so I can do better in regular school too. Performing gave me confidence so I am not afraid to dance or talk in front of groups of people. I think through ballet girls can learn respect for the arts, for their teachers, and for their own bodies.
Can you share with us some advice for parents and young girls alike who are interested in pursuing Ballet?
Ballet can be a great hobby and a way to stay in good shape. If you want to be a professional dancer for your future job you would really have to love it, because if you don't it is hard work and will only get harder. Then you should find the best training you can, you need a teacher who believes in your talent and can help you. I really want to tell young ballet dancers not to worry if they don't have "the perfect ballet body". Dance through it! Ballet lengthens your muscles and as you eat healthy, work hard and grow your body changes. Some ballet companies hire people with different body types and I think everyone can dance if they want it bad enough and work hard enough at it.
Images courtesy of Maurissa and Tatyana Brown, Naturally Me Photography