Image Credit: Justin Reid
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“Dance is a beautiful responsibility.”
Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy is a second soloist with Boston Ballet. She performed as a principal dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem for five years before joining Boston Ballet in 2017. It has been a true delight for me to catch Chyrstyn onstage many times since her move to Boston. Her clean, expressive movement flows seamlessly into the high caliber lines the artists of Boston Ballet create together, but what I personally find most beautiful about her work is the open presence with which she shares it.
Sometimes there’s the assumption that the role of the dancer is to completely transcend humanity and give audiences a break from reality, but for me, it’s far more interesting to watch artists show up without any facade and help us not to ignore or turn away from our humanity but to instead explore it more deeply – to reimagine what is possible within it. This is the type of dancer I see in Chyrstyn – an artist using her whole self to carve her unique signature onto the stage with skillful intention and an unguarded heart. When I watch her dance, I see a person doing more than just “performing well.” She is sharing her work and love for dance – sharing well, working well, loving well. This generosity is also palpable in the perspective she contributes to this blog post, and I am grateful to share her artistry – in written form – with you here.
by Chyrstyn Mariah Fentroy
on: befriending oneself
I am proud of the woman I am becoming. It may have taken a long time but I am finally finding comfort in my own skin. Loving me for me and not for someone else’s idea of what I should be. I’m beautiful – mixed girl, hair short, afro and all.
My mother is white, and my dad is black. I was primarily raised by my mother who was also my ballet teacher. For as long as I can remember, my mom worked very hard to make sure I loved the skin I was in and that I felt like I belonged. I’d go to auditions and she would tell me things like, “yes, your skin is a little bit darker than everyone else in the room, but it gives you a glow and draws eyes towards you.” She would remind me how unique I am and how many people would give anything to be “different.”
Inevitably, I had my insecurities anyway because I didn’t entirely belong to one clear category of people. I felt too ‘this’ to be ‘that’ and too ‘that’ to be ‘this.’ These feelings surfaced mostly in everyday life but because of the perspective my mom instilled in me as a dancer, I did feel at home in the studio. When I was in dance class, I was an equal, and if I worked as hard as the next person, then I deserved to be there just as much as they did.
However, when I began to dive into the professional world and moved to New York City, the security I had felt in dance began to change. In school and in my first years in a company, I not only learned so much about the history of racism in the ballet world but also learned of – and directly dealt with – racism and “colorism” within races. I overheard my peers suggesting, “she’s only getting those parts because she’s black.” I read articles come out about African-American companies favoring only “lighter skinned” dancers. I read comments saying, “you’re not even black – you don’t know what you’re talking about,” in response to a video of me sharing my experience with the Dance Theatre of Harlem- a predominantly African-American ballet company. I was again too ‘this’ to be ‘that’ and too ‘that’ to be ‘this’’- but now even as a dancer.
I’ve had to grow thick skin and remind myself often how to love the person that I am for the amazing qualities that I do have. I have had to learn to accept that not everyone is going to have the same or even a positive opinion of others but that we don’t need give power to unreasonably negative people.
When I joined Boston Ballet in 2017, I learned I was the first African-American woman to join the company in TEN YEARS! Tai Jimenez, also a former Dance Theatre of Harlem company member was the last. Female, African-American dancers went entirely unrepresented in the company for nearly a decade. This was a mind blowing realization for me but it reminded me that I am a part of something larger than myself. Now, every time I go on stage, I remember there could be a little girl of color in the audience who sees me and learns, “I can do that too”.
My moment of personal triumph last season was when the company was performing the ballet “Chaconne” in the Balanchine program. When this ballet first premiered in 1976 with New York City Ballet, the company was, as many companies remain even today, predominantly Caucasian. The ballet opens with a large corps of women in long gowns with their hair flowing down portraying Balanchine’s image of pure, beautiful femininity. The women walk and dance around the stage as if floating and eventually bourre off into the wings.
I was cast as the center woman in the corps de ballet for “Chaconne.” This girl stands on center as the curtain rises and is the first person to move in the entire ballet. Now is when I should mention I do not have long flowing hair. I have a short, curly afro. The first couple performances, I was put in a wig in order to match the rest of the women on stage. I felt nothing but shame the entire time I wore it. Knowing that we were meant to represent beautiful, natural women and that I was the only person on stage who wasn’t beautiful enough to be just be herself was painful.
One day after being fed up with the gross feeling I was carrying around with me, I approached our ballet mistress and asked if she would let me try to perform with my own hair out. The next show, I did. As the curtain rose, me standing there as my real self, all of those feelings of insecurity I had carried with me since I was a little girl, all of the things people have said about me and all of my internal self-destructive voices stopped. I finally felt beautiful. I think it was in that moment that I really, truly began to love myself for who I am. Rather than trying to paint this idea of love onto myself, it was real and I felt free.
on: artistic inspiration
Oddly enough, I don’t have a specific artist that inspires my ambitions, but rather locate things in many people (often in the very people I share a studio with) that I find intriguing. My curiosity for how people do things encourages me to continue exploring my own movement. My mom is also always a part of my dancing. She had to give up so much of her own professional ballet career to support me growing up. I know how much she loves ballet, and in honor of her sacrifice, it is my responsibility to do the best I can. It helps that I also love it!
Beauty is all around us! It’s in the current fall breeze and in the smell of wet pavement. It’s in the music I get to listen to every day and the dialogue my body gets to have with it. It’s in my dog and his never ending happiness. It’s in the book I’m reading. It’s everywhere- and sometimes in the strangest places, like a sharing a good laugh with a stranger on a crowded long morning train commute.
on: the future of ballet
The future of ballet scares me quite a bit. With the always-growing internet and social media, I am afraid that people will lose interest in live art. I just want to remind everyone how special it is to experience live performances. It is a moment that both the artist and audience are sharing and it will never be re-lived or done the same exact way ever again.
However, ballet will also continue to adapt and take advantage of these technological advancements. My boyfriend, Jorge Villarini, was a part of a ballet by Melissa Barak this summer that used a full screen with choreographed projections and a video sequence that felt like watching a 3D movie! I also saw a performance by Company Wayne McGregor where the audience wore 3D glasses and the dancers danced beneath 3D televisions the entire show. I imagine this is just the beginning of what is to come!
on: representation and inclusivity
I think progress starts with not being afraid to ask questions that might make you feel slightly uncomfortable. Reach out to more diverse communities that have the arts, maybe on a lesser scale, and ask them what they think is important. From those answers, try to reach communities that don’t have the arts at all. This isn’t a job that can be done by one group of people – we all have to be involved. I think as a dancer it’s important to be willing to give back to the community in ways outside of performing. Be willing to meet with young dancers of color and encourage them to continue their pursuits. The more everyone feels welcomed in the arts community, the more their friends will be interested, and then the siblings of their friends and so on and so on.
on: growth and goals
It’s my goal not to be so hard on myself this year. To work physically harder than ever, but to give time to being a human. When I am happier, I dance better and so I want to experience life more. I think that will allow me to mature as a stronger, more confident artist.
Being kind-hearted means doing good things for others just to be good, not to be praised or noticed.
For me – and I suspect for you too – Chyrstyn’s perspective is powerful, important and inspiring. No matter where we are in our ballet training, ballet career or post-ballet life, we can all help create healthier, more inclusive communities. Let’s embrace Chyrstyn’s suggestions and start by asking more questions, turning towards discomfort and deliberately advocating for what we believe in.
With heart – and with much gratitude to Chyrstyn,
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