The beauty of ballet — the precision, whimsical costumes and classical performances like The Nutcracker and Black Swan are well known and regaled across the globe. Black ballet, on the other hand, is an entirely different beast. Black people have long-since by excluded from the historically exclusive craft. In this tiny world of elite dance a small number of names including Alvin Ailey, Misty Copeland and the Dance Theater of Harlem reign loudly. Other brown hued dancers — those who have studied the power of point and the mastery of the pirouette often go unnoticed.
In How They Sway, director Jaad Asante gives viewers a glimpse into Atlanta’s predominantly black dance company, Ballethnic. Founded in 1990 by husband/wife team Waverly T. Lucas II and Nena Gilreath, Asante turns her lens on the dancers. We watch as they prepare for their take on Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet which they’ve named The Urban Nutcracker.
The film shines because it is not solely about representation, it’s also about what representation and visibility mean as a whole. Asante captures Gilreath and Lucas as they guide their dancers through practices determined to break bad habits and fix mistakes. It's the quiet moments in the film are the most intriguing. There are lingering shots on ballerina Laila Howard's toffee-toned point shoes or the dreadlocks donned by dancers Robert Graham and Taylor Ferguson. The audience also watches a ballerina as she wrestles her thick curly hair into a neat bun for practice —pins, bands and a spray bottle on deck to aid her.
This short documentary isn’t simply about disrupting the status quo; it’s also about the journey taken to get to that end of season performance. The grind is in the daily work and trial and error. For the members of Ballethnic Dance Company, it’s not a journey one has to take alone.
How They Sway premieres at The BlackStar Film Festival on Sunday, Aug. 6.