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Historic Black ballerina offers perspective for future dancers

Ballet
Posted at 2:31 PM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 17:41:52-05

HOUSTON, Texas -- Lauren Anderson considers the Houston Ballet studio her second home. Weeks ago, she found herself shut out because of the pandemic and extreme weather. However, she has plenty of proof of her greatest dance achievements.

“I am the former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet and presently I am the Associate Director of Education and Community Engagement at the Houston Ballet,” Anderson said.

Anderson is what you could call living, moving history. In 1990, she became one of the first African American ballerinas to become a principal for a major dance company anywhere in the world. It’s an accomplishment that’s still rare among African American dancers.

“There’s a certain aesthetic with ballet," Anderson said. "You think pink and white and tutus and lines of girls who all look alike. Kind of like the Rockettes. You don’t expect to see this Black chick in the middle of the Rockettes.”

Anderson says as a child she didn’t realize she’d never seen another Black dancer until she saw one at a show.

“Just wasn’t ever a big deal. I mean, I was Alice in 'Alice in Wonderland.' I mean, that’s the whitest of the white chicks, right? I was lucky that I was at Houston ballet because Houston ballet has hired 17 Black dancers in the past 40-something years. And that’s different for a major ballet company.”

Anderson says most of the discrimination she experienced came from outsiders who would visit the company.

“There have been comments made like ‘the only reason you’re doing this role is because you’re Black’ or ‘the only reason you’ve been promoted is because you’re Black’ and whatever and then I’m thinking ‘I’m gonna dance so well, I’m gonna balance this so long, I’m gonna do more turns where you can’t say that,’” Anderson said.

That competitive attitude sparked her love for dance when she was young and figured out she had a gift that put her a step above the boys.

“I found out I had this superpower I could jump really high. And it was a lot of fun.”

That gift served her well as she became a rising star in the Houston Ballet Company. Anderson says as she rose to principal dancer, she wasn’t thinking about the color of her skin but instead of all her hard work that led her to that point.

“I wasn’t thinking ‘it’s a big deal that I’m a Black principal dancer,’ all I was thinking was, ‘woohoo, I’m gonna be a principal dancer at the Houston ballet,” Anderson said.

By the time she retired, Anderson had become a legendary figure among dancers far beyond Houston. She says that’s when her perspective changed.

“When I retired I realized there’s not many Black ballerinas at the head of ballet companies.”

Now, three decades after her career began, the topic of racial discrimination has not gone away.

“I’m just tired of having this conversation," Anderson said. "Can we just be dancers?”

Anderson says she wants to share that same perspective with her own students, particularly the ones who look like her.

“There’s only one you that you can bring as an artist to the form and when you combine your personality and your DNA with music and become the music, then you are truly dancing. And that’s what you’re working towards – not being like anybody else because you can’t be like anybody else. There’s only one you. Be the best you, you can be.”