Little brown ballerinas in Delray get life lessons, one turn at a time

As a young girl in the 90’s, if someone asked me if I liked the color of my skin, I’d say ‘yes’ without hesitation. There’s someone I can thank for that.

Ms. Perry, now Mrs. Dennis, was my fourth-grade teacher. She told me I was beautiful at random moments throughout our time together. I was nine then.

Now, at 25, I wonder if those short but memorable teachings on Christianity, self-love and beauty weren’t so random. Maybe she noticed me comparing myself to other girls, overheard me saying things that illustrated self-hate.

Maybe she took on the responsibility of being a source of light in the life of a little Black and Latina girl from a low-income neighborhood just a few blocks from the private Christian school where she taught and I studied.

Childhood photo of Corvaya Jeffries. Hoboken, New Jersey

Childhood photo of Corvaya Jeffries. Hoboken, New Jersey

Whatever the reason, her little lessons, casual conversations and clear affirmations stayed with me.

Unfortunately, not every little girl has a Mrs. Dennis or in Arianna’s case, a Ms. Maryann, to spend quality time with.

If you ask Arianna Louth what confidence means, she’d tell you (just as she told me) it means never worrying about who’s judging. It means dancing like no one’s watching.

She’s one of the girls who dances under the instruction of Maryann Payne at The Milagro Center in Delray Beach.

Maryann Payne, professional dancer

Payne, a professional dancer, is helping little brown girls recognize their beauty and build confidence by teaching them how to plié. Seeing them in a class would get anyone to envision a stage full of brown ballerinas in a venue of the highest prestige.

But in the real world, classical ballet hosts a sparse amount of Black women. Eighty years after American Ballet Theater opened, well-known Misty Copeland was accepted. She was only the third dancer-of-color to date.

Misty Copeland performs onstage at the 37th annual Kennedy Center Honors at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on Dec. 7, 2014, in Washington. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Misty Copeland performs onstage at the 37th annual Kennedy Center Honors at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on Dec. 7, 2014, in Washington. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Why? Culture writers, dance professionals and scholars have attempted to answer that question for years.

One thing’s for sure: It has something to do with appearance.

In her younger years, Payne remembers a choreographer asking her pas de deux partner ‘how was it dancing with Maryann? Is she too strong?’ He asked enough times for Maryann to notice. She was brown and muscular, two things she discovered were different in the world of ballet — especially ballet in South Florida.

“Our shades of melanin, they make us look stronger,” Payne said when asked what it means to be a brown woman and a ballerina.

Maybe brown ballerinas are stronger, though. Not because of their physique, but because of their resilience.

Historically, casting and judging an aspiring ballerina has been based on more than just the dancer’s technique. This is something Payne experienced while attending Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach.

While a fair-skinned dancer may focus on landing every turn correctly, a brown ballerina would not just focus on getting each move right. But she’d also worry about the strain in her leg that makes her thigh muscle poke out too much, the tone of her skin against her pale pink leotard and even the texture of her hair under the lights.

Payne questioned if looking ‘too strong’ would have a negative effect on her professional career. She had a healthy body weight but didn’t appear to be “slim” as she had “more curves.”

This didn’t stop her from dancing, though. As time went on, she created M.A.P. Dance Company (Mary Ann Payne). and took on synchronized swimming, another form of dance.

With that, she not only brings experience to The Milagro Center’s dance studio, but she serves as an example of diligence and an idea of the future.

Maryann Payne and her dance students at The Milagro Center in Delray Beach. (Corvaya Jeffries/The Palm Beach Post)

Maryann Payne and her dance students at The Milagro Center in Delray Beach. (Corvaya Jeffries/The Palm Beach Post)

Imagine 25 little brown girls watching a woman who looks like them float across a stage in satin pointes. They see her strong and thriving. The sight is illuminating. As a result, it’s easy for them to imagine themselves in her place, in her light.

The impact that Mrs. Dennis had on me is the impact that Maryann has on Arianna Louth, which is the impact that Misty Copeland has on girls all over the world.

And “Delray Beach’s very own Misty Copeland” is honored.

Maryann Payne, a professional dancer often known as Delray's own Misty Copeland, teaches ballet to at-risk youth at The Milargro Center in Delray Beach. (video screen grabs/The Palm Beach Post)

Maryann Payne, a professional dancer often known as Delray’s own Misty Copeland, teaches ballet to at-risk youth at The Milargro Center in Delray Beach. (video screen grabs/The Palm Beach Post)

“Hearing that is just confirmation that what I do at The Milagro Center is important,” Payne said before starting her dance class on Thursday afternoon. And so is “showing the girls that there’s a whole new world out there to experience.”

Most of Payne’s students are at-risk youth whose parents work two to three jobs. Through her class, the girls learn ballet techniques, yes. But they also learn what it means to be graceful, why practice is important and how to express emotions through art.

Maryann Payne and her dance students at The Milagro Center in Delray Beach. (Corvaya Jeffries/The Palm Beach Post)

Maryann Payne and her dance students at The Milagro Center in Delray Beach. (Corvaya Jeffries/The Palm Beach Post)

“I like to dance with Ms. Maryann because she pushes me hard. She pushes me to my limits. When I’m home, I practice at least ten times,” said Louth.

What kind of woman would I be without my Mrs. Dennis? What kind of women will girls like Louth grow up to be without their Ms. Maryann?

It’s the almost effortless exchange of words, energy and hugs that is responsible for helping transform impressionable youngsters into responsible, confident and self-aware adults.

Or for this story, it’s that exchange that helps transform little brown ballerinas into beautiful black women.

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