In 2015, Ballet in the City founder Jessica Wallis and Misty Copeland founded the Ballet in the City Scholarship (formerly the Misty Copeland Scholarship) to provide opportunities for African American dancers. Every year since, Ballet in the City has continued to award this scholarship to one female and one male African American dancer in order to honor Ms. Copeland and continue to advance the goal of providing opportunities for African American dancers in classical ballet.
This year, Marjá S. Miller has been selected as the female recipient of the Ballet in the City Scholarship. Marjá is an almost 15-year-old ballerina from South Carolina who dances at the Carolina Dance Conservatory. She has been dancing ballet for about 11 years. Marjá took some time recently to talk with Ballet in the City about her ballet career and what receiving the Ballet in the City Scholarship means to her.
Ballet in the City: How did you get involved in ballet?
Marjá: I couldn’t sit still when I was younger; I was always moving and mimicking the dancers I’d watch on TV. So my mom decided that at the age of three, I’d go into ballet and ever since then it’s changed my life!
Ballet is an incredibly challenging sport and art form. What has been your biggest challenge during your years of dance – either a physical challenge or something more mental/emotional?
Dancing to me is on another level of physical and mental strain. It takes a lot out of a person and they can’t be weak physically or mentally. Physically, I used to compare myself. I’m shaped completely differently than everyone at my dance school. I have more muscles, more hips, more thighs, a bigger bottom than they do, and it definitely shows. I’ve learned to love myself and to accept how I’m built.
Mentally, I’ve gotten discouraged when, during my training, I’ve traveled and worked with different instructors who may not have recognized how hard I was working. It’s hard when the hard work you put in doesn’t always get recognized. Sometimes it makes you believe that you didn’t truly work your hardest – when in reality, you truly did! When those situations happened, I would try to keep myself positive, and just remind myself that I am enough and I shouldn’t beat myself down too hard.
What has been your proudest moment as a dancer? What has been your favorite role that you have danced?
My proudest moments… Most of them truly are when I have been given the opportunity to have lead roles. The feeling of being able to get into a character and tell the story in your own way and make the audience feel something special is incredible.
Another proud moment for me, I think, is when I realized what kind of dancer I want to be. I sort of had a breakthrough of realizing what I was capable of, and I held on to that and grew from it. The hard work I’ve been doing has paid off so well.
My favorite role I’ve played would have to be Fairy Doll. My teacher did the production Fairy Doll, and I was chosen as the lead role. I struggled so much doing it because mentally I was psyching myself out and putting more weight on my shoulders than I needed. It wasn’t my best performance but it definitely taught me something: to always keep a smile and to not lose who I am as a dancer, to make those mistakes but also learn from them!
How did you hear about the Ballet in the City Scholarship? What interested you in applying for it?
My mom actually introduced me to the scholarship. She told me that it was originally the Misty Copeland award, (which I felt was really exciting) and she wanted me to apply for the scholarship since it would aid with my expenses in ballet.
Why do you think scholarships such as the Ballet in the City scholarship, which is awarded annually to a male and female African American ballerina, are important for the world of ballet, which has not always been incredibly diverse?
We deserve recognition. We deserve exposure. Scholarships like these are what inspire us to work hard and take chances. Having an award strictly for African American dancers is important because it lets us know that we aren’t completely hidden or forgotten. The ballet world is harsh, and it’s tough being a brown ballerina because we have to work ten times as hard just to be noticed, while others may have it way easier.
In your Ballet in the City Scholarship application, you mention that it is sometimes hard to be the only black dancer at your studio. What are some ways you have found to work through those difficulties, and how do you not let yourself get too discouraged when those feelings arise?
Everyday I look into a glass mirror and I stick out like a sore thumb. I used to want to fit in and blend in with everyone, not attract too much attention to myself. However, I realize that sticking out is amazing, being the “odd” one out can help you prove yourself and that’s what I do! I’ve learned to love who I am. I keep a positive outlook on everything and don’t let anything try and ruin how I feel towards myself.
Your application also mentions dancers such as Misty Copeland and Michaela DePrince who are breaking barriers as ballerinas of color. How do you hope to also break barriers in the ballet world – and how do you hope to inspire younger dancers of color who may not see a lot of ballerinas who look like them onstage sometimes?
I hope to break barriers in a way that it changes ballet’s “skin” – its face. I hope that I’m able to pave a way for the next generation of dance. It’s important to have an inspiration who makes you want to be like them but push ever farther than they did. I don’t want us brown dancers to be viewed as an ‘African American’ ballerina. I want to be viewed as a dancer who so happens to have melanin in their skin. I wouldn’t have been where I am now if I hadn’t reached out to my inspirations, tried to get them to notice me and see what I can do. From just doing that, I’ve experienced so many amazing opportunities, and I am genuinely grateful and appreciative to be where I am.
What is one message you would like to pass along to younger dancers?
Show yourself, show people what you’re capable of and don’t hold back anything. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be harsh and discouraging, but don’t lose yourself in it. Keep true to yourself and keep your goals clear, follow the path of amazing brown ballerinas who have a name in this industry – but also make a path for yourself for others to follow. Make something new.
What is your dream ballet to dance in or your dream role to perform?
My dream ballet to dance in is Romeo and Juliet. I love the ballet so much and I’d love to be Juliet. But I also really love Balanchine’s Jewels and would love to be a Ruby!
What has ballet meant to you throughout your life?
Ballet means a lot to me. It has helped mold me, helped me cope through a lot of hard times and I don’t know what I’d really do without it. It’s not really just a hobby anymore. It’s truly a part of me and I never see myself really venturing away from it.
What does it mean to you to win the Ballet in the City Scholarship?
More than words can describe. I was extremely shocked that I’d gotten it and there was just so much joy knowing I was awarded this amazing opportunity.
This Scholarship would not be possible without sponsors and donors who step in to make these opportunities a reality. Ballet in the City sincerely thanks Bella Rosa Dance Academy for organizing the inaugural ‘A Day of Ballet’ which raised over $1,000 for the Scholarship fund. Additionally, it thanks DanceWear Corner, Gaynor Minden, and Skye Ballet Center for their incredible support. If you would like to support The Ballet in the City Scholarship or get involved, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Written by Laurel Wilder Meisel, blogger for Ballet in the City