Brown Girls Do Ballet Founder Captures Ballet’s Beautiful Diversity in New Book, The Color of Dance
On September 26, 2023, Dallas-based photographer and Brown Girls Do Ballet (BGDB) founder TaKiyah Wallace-McMillian debuted her first book, The Color of Dance: A Celebration of Diversity and Inclusion in the World of Ballet. Published by Black Dog & Leventhal, the coffee table book captures images and stories of dancers across all ages, body types, hair styles, and hues.
“I wanted to give a love letter to the dancers who’ve allowed me into their space over the past 11 years and who have never seen themselves in a coffee table book,” Wallace-McMillian says. She explains that she excitedly agreed to develop the book in 2020 after turning down at least three previous offers because the timing and the story hadn’t felt right. “I really wanted to honor those early dancers [I worked with],” she continues.
The book is an extension of the early photo shoots on which BGDB was founded. It includes older images that were never posted, a few images that went viral online, and new ones shot specifically for the project. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wallace-McMillian and her team traveled throughout the U.S. capturing the dancers she’d previously worked with, as well as dancers selected from nearly 200 submissions from her virtual casting calls. The yearlong process was fraught with multiple starts and stops due to pandemic shutdowns, involving masks, COVID-19 tests, and hours of quarantining in hotel rooms before shoots. From those efforts, Wallace-McMillian submitted 600 images to her publisher instead of the 150 that were initially requested. “I couldn’t pick because they all felt like my children,” she shares, “so my first time seeing the book was after it was printed.” The finished product includes nearly 200 images and quotes from the dancers.
Wallace-McMillian decided to showcase everyday dancers in this book. Apart from a set color scheme for certain cities—like the white leotards she requested for the Washington, DC, shoot—dancers mostly wore outfits sourced directly from their own closets. Some had only brown tights and brown shoes, while others had only pink; some wore Afros, twist-outs, or box braids, and others wore traditional ballet buns. Many of the dancers were preteens, but the eldest was in her 50s. “There’re so many dancers, especially the older ones, that didn’t see themselves in the world of ballet, so they pivoted to other styles of dance,” Wallace-McMillian says. “I wanted them to see themselves in this book.”
As executive director of Brown Girls Do Ballet, Wallace-McMillian has grown the project’s early photo shoots into a nonprofit that offers supplies, scholarships, mentorships, free in-school programming and weekend community classes, and more. The Color of Dance can be purchased wherever books are sold, with sales going towards BGDB programs—critical support at a time when DEI funding has dwindled compared to the efforts sparked by the civil unrest of 2020. Even as the BGDB movement continues to evolve, Wallace-McMillian maintains her mission to increase the representation of dancers of color in ballet. Her images, especially those included within the book, continue to celebrate these dancers and introduce them to possibilities they may not have seen before she shined her camera light on them.