Filmmaker and New Orleans native Laci Dent was a finalist in the Glamour x Girlgaze film competition for her independent documentary Bending Ballet.
The 26-year-old writer and director works as a coordinator for Ava DuVernay's film and studio distribution company ARRAY.
The Los Angeles resident's documentary follows the lives of three black teenage girls in the ballet industry and was sparked by the question: "Where are the highly trained black ballerinas?" Dent told Blavity in an April 13 interview.
The main characters are Kamala McDaniels, Sydney Guine and Erica Patton. These 15-year-olds are defying the odds. McDaniels was awarded a full scholarship for year-round study with Academie De Danse Princess Grace in Monaco. Her goal is to dance professionally in Europe and throughout the United States. Guine is a member of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and has performed for Michelle Obama at the White House. She serves as an ambassador for both Brown Girls Do Ballet and Brown Girls Do Gymnastics. Patton is also a student at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and spent a summer in New York studying at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Dent fell in love with filmmaking during a trip to London when she was 21. After viewing Pan's Labyrinth, a classic film directed by Guillermo del Toro, she had an "aha moment" that telling complex and layered narratives would be the pursuit of her life.
We caught up with Dent to talk in-depth about her short film Bending Ballet, her experience as a black woman in Hollywood and the top lessons she has learned from DuVernay.
When she was 11, Dent's parents removed her from ballet classes because of the harsh criticism from instructors about her body image.
"When I decided to make this documentary, it was all these emotions coming back, and I really wanted to shine a light on how black girls are pushed out of that art form at a young age," she said.
At the time, her parents couldn't imagine ballet transforming into a career, so they focused on Dent's academics instead.
"There was no Misty Copeland, there was no mainstream ballerina to aspire to be like, so in my parents' eyes, they did not even look to ballet as a source of 'oh, this could be a career.' It was an unheard of concept to them," she said.
Bending Ballet is a testament to how black girls everywhere continue to show up and occupy all spaces despite the odds. "Their love for an art form that doesn't necessarily love them is powerful," Dent said. "How can they be so in love with something that has put up all these roadblocks to keep them out?"
Ballet is an art form steeped in Russian tradition and technique that looks for dancers who are thin and not too tall. In order to make it into the top dance companies, ballerinas start perfecting their craft at a young age. It is a dance style that seeks uniformity and does not often fit well with the natural way black girls' bodies are built. "Darker skinned women immediately throw off the companies' uniformity because they stand out, and that is why a lot of ballet companies are reluctant to accept them," she said.
Dent broke into the film industry when she was accepted into the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She got her foot in the door as an intern for BET Networks and a volunteer for ARRAY, and has not stopped hustling since. In 2016, her short film The Executioner screened at the New Orleans Film Festival, and this year she was a finalist for the Disney and ABC writing program. Dent says she keeps going because she isn't afraid of rejection.
"Rejection comes with the territory of wanting to be in the film business; you're going to get rejected a million times, but you only need one yes," Dent said. "If more people focused on the one yes, they would feel encouraged to keep working at it until they get an opportunity."
While in school, she experienced racism and discrimination from faculty. She often felt that her stories and viewpoints were being looked over.
"The stories I wanted to tell were not as important as the white male stories that were being told," Dent said. "They [the faculty] were nice people, but they could not really identify with me, and I felt that I was not a priority for them."
She recalled an incident, when as one of the two black women in a documentary class, the professor told her not to make the movie "about race," when asked about her viewpoint.
Finding a film community outside of school is what encouraged her to keep going. "I saw people who looked like me and were successful in their careers," Dent said.
She did not build her tough skin on her own. She draws her inspiration from her father, Burnell Dent, who is a former Green Bay Packers and New York Giants football player. "He's always been a self-starter and a go-getter. I'm very grateful to have him as a role model in my life," she said.
Since working for ARRAY, Dent has served under the leadership of DuVernay and top film executives.
"Being under DuVernay's leadership has taught me the importance of creating a space for yourself, how to lead with love and to remain grateful," Dent said. "She is an example that no matter how far you get in life you always remain humble."
It's unknown if Dent will continue the Bending Ballet series, but she is currently working on her first coming of age feature film.
Watch Bending Ballet right here!