Ayisha McMillan Cravotta has devoted her life to keeping her back straight and keeping her toes in the right direction since the age of two. In 2004, she made history when she became the North Carolina Dance Theatre’s first African-American ballerina to play a lead role, of Clara, in The Nutcracker.
And last year, at the age of 33, she became the first African-American principal of the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance. This fall, Cravotta, a prima ballerina, was invited to speak to first and second graders at the First Ward Creative Arts Academy for being as part of a HistoryMakers speaker series to expose students to different career paths.
Cravotta presented a slideshow of family photos and the first and second graders at First Ward Creative Arts squealed every time they saw a young photo of her in a tutu. They shouted even louder when she taught them some cool ballet moves, including the basic "first position." But she says she’s not actually expecting them to pursue ballet.
"I would be shocked if even one of them became a ballerina," Cravotta says. "So few will make it. It’s just, it’s not a huge industry. The arts aren’t supported here in the United States you know the way that it is in European nations or some Asian nations. And then also, the art form, it’s so rigorous and it’s so particular in terms of whose going to work for this art form and who’s not.”
And she says the same for the students in her school, the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance, where over 800 students come to learn to dance.
“It’s this full circle type of a journey for me," she says. "I’ve worn their little slippers or big slippers or point shoes or jazz shoes. So I can see myself in all of them.”
Cravotta’s parents enrolled her in ballet classes when she was just two years old. She grew up in Oak Park, Illinois and moved out to Houston at the age of 15 to start her career as a professional ballerina and has been traveling the world dancing since then. She says she grew up in settings where she was often the only person of color and felt comfortable in these settings, so she says she didn’t notice it besides the hate mail her dance directors sometimes received for casting her in certain productions. But one time a choreographer told her, “You know you’re the only African-American in the cast and because of you know this, and it's a romantic role and I don’t have a black male to pair you with so I don’t think I can have you in my ballet.”
When he said “this” he was pointing out the color of her skin. In the past, it was not uncommon for African-American ballet dancers to be asked to wear white make-up so that they could blend in with the cast. She says this is still a pervasive problem, not only in ballet, but in all forms of visual arts.
"I think the aesthetic is traditional and it’s old and it tends to exoticize black females, instead of behold them as ever being able to be gentle and be beautiful," Cravotta says. "Just like we see in other areas of visual arts, when black women are portrayed, it’s OK to portray them as strong, it’s OK to portray them as being fiery or having an attitude. But any hint of gentleness and there’s this disconnect. People think, ‘Oh no, no, that’s not the right role for her’.”
And she’s hoping to change that.
“As a community, African-Americans see that image that ballet portrays and I don’t think that we’re really that excited to put our kids in ballet because of that," she says. "So I hope that in my role as principal, inviting children of all colors. This is for you, this is for you, this is for all of us, that we’ll begin to change it."