Chanel Holland’s Chocolate Ballerina Company Empowers Dancers of Color

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Twenty-nine year old Chanel Holland is a woman on a mission. As the Founder and Artistic Director of Chocolate Ballerina Company, she is working to provide dancers of color with professional performance opportunities and to bring ballet culture—along with quality arts education programming— to urban youth.

The Temple University graduate is no stranger to the professional dance world. She was accepted into the Alvin Ailey School at age 16, trained with Philadanco as part of their D/2 Apprentice Company, and even danced as part of the Sixers Junior Dance Team. But like most dancers of color, she is also no stranger to the systemic racism that characterizes classical ballet.

“I walked into an institution where I had been accepted as a member of the corps de ballet. I guess because of the way I was dressed—my “swag” personality— they thought I was lost and looked at me like I was in the wrong place. I showed them my acceptance letter, took off my Adidas pants, and put on my pointe shoes. I was the only black girl. And it didn’t matter to them, but it mattered to me. I walked out of that rehearsal and cried.”

She credits her perseverance and eventual success to the support of her parents and her strong personality (“You have to have that as an African American ballerina,” she notes), but Holland wants to make a change, especially because the majority of the dancers with whom she works have similar stories.

Although Chocolate Ballerina Company is just a few years old, their most recent auditions, held in September, drew approximately 15 dancers. Their first annual concert, held at the Performance Garage, sold out with an audience of 117 people crammed into a space designed to hold only about 100. Their second, which drew inspiration from Phantom of the Opera (and featured Ashley Hackney’s Outbreak Dance Company), drew a crowd of 200.

“I love Judy to death,” recalls Holland, referring to the Performance Garage’s Rental and Operations Manager, July Williams, a longtime supporter of up-and-coming Philadelphia dance companies. “‘You’re growing rapidly,’ she told us. ‘You maybe need to have 2 shows next time.'”

For their 2020 concert, the company will present a world premiere based on Romeo and Juliet, which aims to merge ballet technique with urban pop culture music. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Do you feel like this is being disrespectful to the ballet art form and its legacy?’ I tell them ‘No.’ The only people who would consider it to be disrespectful would be people who don’t have a passion for art. We have no boundaries. We are open to creating several avenues for creative expression without the fear of offending.”

For the time being, directing Chocolate Ballerina Company is a labor of love, although Holland pays all dancers for performances. As a lead teaching artist for BalletX’s Dance eXchange Program, she generally wakes up at 5:00 am to check her emails and then spends her morning teaching the fundamentals of dance to local public-school students. In the afternoon, she spends time writing grants, volunteering with Outbreak Dance Company, or teaching classes for her own company’s Pre-Prima Ballerina program. By 9:00 pm, she’s finalizing lesson plans with her Dance eXchange accompanist and teaching assistant, ready to do it all again the next day.

She’s had several impactful mentors and teachers along the way, including Desmond Richardson of Complexions Ballet Company in NYC, and locals Christine Cox, Jillian Harris, Sammy Reyes, and Joan Meyers Brown. As she sees it, “Dance arts has no color, has no boundaries, that what makes dance amazing. If you’re passionate, then you can pursue anything in this world […]. Skill can be taught. Everyone deserves the chance.”

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