Readers and I shared Misty Copeland’s picture book Firebird this week, illustrated by Christopher Myers. The book is beautiful and the class loved learning about Misty and her difficult path to become a principal dancer for the American Ballet Company.
During one class’ readaloud, an excited kindergartener cried, “That ballerina has a ponytail and brown skin just like mine! I’m a ballerina too!”
The class moved their arms and pointed their toes as we watched a video compilation of Misty Copeland dancing different routines and shows. We had a fun conversation about how dancing is for everyone – boys and girls, big and small, skin of all colors – if they are willing to be patient and work hard.
But the class came with it’s challenges, too. After watching Misty perform, my students were curious about ballet and wanted to try it themselves. While they enjoyed checkout and some quiet reading time, I hopped onto YouTube to try to find a quick ballet class or example for students to try. I found many different videos to choose from – but not one was taught by, or even featured, a person of color.
I was disappointed to find that it was easier to find cartoon videos starring frogs and bears than it was to find a little Black boy or girl stretching and jumping at the barre.
I realized quickly that I wasn’t going to find exactly what I was looking for, so I selected the best video I found find, and put it on for students to move along with. Right away the video, which featured a white woman standing by herself in the middle of a ballet studio, changed the tone of the class. The boys said, “I thought you said that boys dance ballet, too?” I responded that they do, that there are many male dancers. One boy, looking at me like I was crazy, pointed at the TV and said “Oh yeah? Well then where are the boys?” He had a point. He, and the other boys, silently walked away and took a seat.
The little girls that celebrated seeing themselves in the pages of Firebird weren’t quite as forthcoming, but their disappointment was obvious. While they had been twirling and leaping around the room with their books just seconds before, they wilted when I pressed play on the video. Another video that showed them, quietly, that they didn’t belong. They still participated, but it felt like the joy and excitement had been sucked out of the room.
This is one of many examples of mistakes that I’ve made with my classes during Black History Month this year. In retrospect, if I couldn’t find an inclusive video celebrating what Misty Copeland fought so hard to achieve, and what Firebird stands for, I shouldn’t have shown a video at all. But I won’t use a mistake as an excuse to stop bringing Black history into my classes. I let myself feel the sting and disappointment, made a note of it for the next time I use the book, and picked myself up to teach the next group. In February and every other month, perfection is not my goal – teaching isn’t about being perfect. It’s about showing up and doing the work, because students deserve it.
Maya Angelou says, “Do the best that you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Because of this experience, I know better. And next time, I’ll do better. In the meantime, if you know of any dance-along ballet classes that feature a diverse range of students, please send them my way! I’d love to share them with my budding dancers.
Black History Month is important, and I’m working on creating a more meaningful and engaging experience for my students this year. Learn more, and follow along, here.