Ingrid Silva: “being a black ballerina, I am breaking through barriers”

By Roxane Cassehgari

Photos by Haruka Sakaguchi
June 28, 2016 All

She started ballet dancing when she was eight-years-old in Mangueira, a favela of Rio de Janeiro.
She did so following her mother’s advice to channel her energy through sport. Today Ingrid is a 26­-year -old professional ballerina with goals as high as New York City’s skyline. She moved to the big apple when she was 18 to join the Dance Theatre of Harlem and has been dancing with the troupe ever since.





From Rio to New York

 

“I started dancing when I was eight-years-old with Dançando Para Não Dançar, a project dedicated to take ballet to the favelas of Rio. One of the teachers used to dance at the Dance Theatre of Harlem and she took me to my first audition in New York in 2007. I got into the summer intensive programme and stayed there.
I spent the summer of 2007 in New York and then went back in 2008 but, this time I trained with the professional programme for four months before joining the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble. In 2013, a small number of the young dancers joined the main company: Dance Theatre of Harlem. I was one of them!
I never thought about becoming a dancer, let alone a professional one. I used to practise a lot of different sports and I decided to pick ballet when I heard of the classes in my neighbourhood. It is only when I was 18 and left for the US to dance with the company that I became determined. I knew I wanted to do this professionally and I would have to sacrifice being without my family.”

 

First days in New York

 

“I travelled from Brazil straight to Harlem! I remember the day I arrived at JFK airport. I met this lady who spoke Spanish and that was the only language I could communicate in. She was my guardian angel and took the subway with me all the way to Harlem. That very first day, I immediately went to the dance studio and started training. I was getting into my routine already.

 

Cultural immersion

 

I did try to learn English at a school but I stopped because I did not feel I was learning a lot. I started learning on my own and then with people. In my dance programme, there was an American girl from Louisiana. She invited me to spend Christmas with her family. It was my first Christmas in the US, in an American home and in the South! It was honestly the funniest Christmas of my life. Everyone would talk to me in English thinking that since I was black, I should speak English. In the end, this is how I learnt English and discovered American culture. I would go to the movies, read many books and make conversation with Americans. It was very hard because the language definitely created a barrier at the beginning but I learnt how to speak and understand English in one year.”

 

The American dream

 

“I have lived in New York for seven years now. This has changed my perceptions of my country. I realised that the opportunities are not the same in Brazil. When you are not born with money, it makes it much harder to reach for your dreams. In fact, it is easier to go to another country and move up the social ladder from there. For me, it would have been hard to succeed in ballet in Brazil. It is true to say that the US is a land of opportunities.”

 

Racism and discrimination

 

“Everything is about race here. You are identified by your race from the moment you are born. In Brazil, we are all very mixed and race is not a way to differentiate people. We do not talk overtly about racism and I never felt that being black was going to be an obstacle.
However, it is true, you do not see that many black ballerinas in Brazilian ballet companies. You do not see black ballet dancers on national television either. Perhaps, racism is more silent in Brazil.
Racial inequality is still very much prevailing in the US and in many other countries. Only recently was an African American ballerina, Misty Copeland, named as the first principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre in New York. This story made the headlines.

 

I am aware that being a black ballerina, I am breaking through barriers but I do not want to be affected by racism. Since I come from a country with a different perspective on race, I am less sensitive to racism. Either I do not even see it or I ignore it. I take racism as being ignorant. That said, I know I was also lucky. I was sheltered from all these issues. The Dance Theatre of Harlem Company was founded by Arthur Mitchell, an African American dancer, who wanted to give a chance to black dancers in the ballet world. The company is now very international. There is a mix of people coming from everywhere. There are also many Brazilians. This worldwide environment made it so much easier for me. I also think that it is not only about race but that everything comes down to the lack of opportunities. In Brazil, I was never a victim of racism and I was very driven and loved dancing. Yet it is the US that rewarded me for this. It is only here that I was able to grow professionally.”

 

Doubts

 

“I have to say emigrating was very hard. I did not go back home for the first three years. I thought a lot that I was young and that I was not going to be able to do it but then I thought about home and how it would be harder. I was determined to stay because I wanted to change my family’s life and changed their history. That would never have been possible staying at home. I have come a long away. Now, I have incredible opportunities. Here in the US, I can change company if I want to, I can go to school… I am thinking of studying Psychiatry. I want to help dancers because it is a very stressful profession. I can even have other opportunities that I can pursue in the US. I do think it is important to go to another country to get another experience but it is tough. Perhaps, your home country should give you the support to seize this kind of opportunity.”

 

Recognition

 

“I never thought I would go back home and be on national television. I realised that sadly, you have to leave Brazil, go to another country, make it out there and then people will recognise you for who you are. It should not be this way. You would hope that your own country would be the first to give you recognition. For instance, why would it not be possible to have black ballerinas in the most important dance companies of Brazil? Brazil is such an amazing country. Things should be different. So, I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had in the US but I am already thinking of how to change things in Brazil. My experience must make a difference not just for me but also for my home country. The kids who are in my situation should feel that they can also achieve the same things as I did.”





Return to Brazil

 

“Where I am right now is where I am meant to be. It took me all these years to get recognition in Brazil but it is not enough. I am planning on making a change in Brazil. I also keep in mind that it is important to be a good representative of your own country wherever you are so I want to educate people about Brazil. I am not going to be dancing forever. I want to do more. This is a formative experience in my life so that I can do more after. I feel that I can bring a lot to people. I love when people go to my performances and say “my daughter looks up to you.” That is what motivates me, especially in the dance world, which is not an easy environment. You get very tired and there is a lot of competition so you have to find inspiration. I now have a sense of responsibility. I feel humble and it is important for me to give back. Education is the way you give back. I actually just had my first Ingrid Silva workshop. I taught ballet to children and adults in 20 schools in cities in Brazil, including Rio. It was the most amazing experience to go back to my own city and teach. For most of them, it was their first time being taught by a professional ballerina coming from their country and living abroad. For me, it was also my first teaching experience. I did not know how to do it and I thought I would just learn on the spot and it worked fine. It was incredible. I am now getting more requests to come back and teach.”

 

Impact

 

“You have to be visible. People need to know who you are. I had to put myself out there and come out of my little dance bubble. I have done interviews for several Brazilian magazines and last year, I participated in a gala for the Brazil foundation in New York. I am also using social media a lot. I created my Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts and I just launched my own YouTube channel! This is a great way for me to be in touch with my audience and share what my life is. I can show them where I am travelling but also simple things such as how I do my hair. It is not much, but it can always help someone. It may not be a lot for you but it may be a lot for other people.
With social media, I can reach out to a lot of people, not only Brazilians. A lot of people read my stories online, have seen me dancing or have kids who look up to me. One fan set up an Instagram account with all my pictures and quotes. I would never have expected that. She was inspired by my story. This is amazing because you realise people relate to your story and how much you can make a change this way. It can be a bit scary to see your photo being shared everywhere and people not knowing it is you but I appreciate it. I want to use this power to make a change and break boundaries. I want everyone to see you can be any colour and you can still do it.”

 

A wish

 

“I just wish my mom would come one day to New York to see me dance. She did come to the US but she has not seen me on stage yet. I want her to be in the audience. I have done all of this for her. I would not have made it without her here. I have all this perseverance thanks to her. She pushed me to go to the US because she knew it was my one­ time opportunity. She always believed in me even when I thought I was not going to make it. For the first three years in New York, I only saw her online. Yet, she never cried, she gave me confidence, which is super important to be able to leave home and work in the world of ballet. She would always say that your turn will come when it is the right time for you to succeed. However and how far you go, you have to go clean and do it without stomping on people. When I went back to Rio to teach, she was very grateful for what I was trying to do for people in Brazil.”

 

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