She was 5 years old when she saw her big sister dance in a ballet.
It’s not as if she can name a certain tutu or a turn from that night. But when her mother asked her, “Do you want to do that?” Whitney Huell nodded yes.
Now, 26 years later, 5-year-olds are watching Whitney’s every plié and pirouette in the Kansas City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” In this rotating cast, on some nights she steals the stage in “Arabian,” bringing sultry chic to the scene known as “Coffee.” Other times, she’s a snowflake, flower and French Shepherd.
But there are also shows where kids yell “Wow” and “Pretty” as she evokes the stuff that even my fairy tale dreams are made of, as she sparkles and shines as the Snow Queen. The snow is falling, her King is by her side and her long arms and legs seem to stretch across the stage as she dances. Even in the back of the Kauffman Center theater, you can see that smile. You feel her joy. She loves what she does. #BlackGirlMagic at the ballet. Yes.
The Snow Queen can be a defining role in any ballerina’s career, especially a black ballerina. Whitney has played the role before, but this year she wears the crown five times. It’s a big deal.
“It’s a much more featured role than I have done before, and it’s a step forward to being featured more on stage,” she tells me the day after her first Snow Queen performance of the season. “It’s nice to be included and to have the opportunity to do something just like all of the dancers. I am up here doing this — and I am black.”
Dance has a history of “white ballet” — “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” — where the staging and costumes are white, so directors cast all-white dancers, too. This is an arts culture where white dancers easily find ballet shoes that match their skin but black dancers have to dye their own. A studio once dyed Whitney’s shoes olive green in a misbegotten attempt. Who is green? It’s 2017, and manufacturers are only just now expanding the range of flesh tones for pointe shoes and leotards.
This is why it was historic when the American Ballet Theatre announced that Kansas City native Misty Copeland would dance the lead in “Swan Lake” in 2015. That same year she became the company’s first African-American woman to be named principal dancer in its 75-year history.
A year earlier, Whitney became the second black ballerina the Kansas City Ballet ever hired as a company dancer. The ballet is 60 years old and there have been two. The first was Toinette Biggins Tamayo, who danced with the KC Ballet in the ’70s.
“I still remember when I got the call,” Toinette tells me. “I didn’t tell anybody. All of my friends were cheerleaders. I was in the Kansas City Ballet and I was just so happy to be there.” She left the company when she wasn’t cast in “Les Sylphides.” She was told she wasn’t a strong enough dancer but found out it was because it was “a white ballet.”
She became a dance teacher. And now, seeing Whitney on stage is a personal point of pride.
“Isn’t it something? It took 40 years for another one to come along,” she says. “I used to dream of being Snow Queen. There was always a ceiling. Whitney is just fabulous, and you don’t know what seeing her means to me.”
‘One dancer at a time’
Diversifying the ballet is a must, says artistic director Devon Carney, who joined the ballet in 2014 after more than 30 years on stage and in the wings.
“It’s something I very much desire and wanted to have. If we are going to reflect this community and the global community at large, we have to start one dancer at a time.”
It’s not lip service. He goes to auditions across the country held by the International Association of Blacks in Dance specifically for women of color. Now, a third of the 30 company dancers are people of color: Two are Asian, three are African-American and five are Latino.
“Devon is making it a point to be diverse,” says Whitney, 31. “As far as the studio, I feel like I am an equal. I have just as much of a chance to do things as other people.”
And Carney doesn’t tokenize. Whitney is not Snow Queen because she is black. She is Snow Queen because she nails it.
“First and foremost,” Carney says, “the question is, ‘Do you have the technique? Do you have the ability to do the role?’ Whitney does. That’s what matters.”
Still, having her on stage carries a certain significance. Little girls of color see her and look up to her. For decades, we have gone underrepresented in the realm of princesses and ballerinas. There’s even an Instagram page, @browngirlsdoballet, celebrating diversity. Last year, a mother wrote to Whitney. Seeing her on stage inspired her little girl. Whitney sent her a pair of pointe shoes.
“When you have a dancer of color in a feature role, it’s inspiring to the youth that have a chance to come and see us,” Carney says. “It doesn’t have to be unattainable and unreachable. Everything is possible. And that’s the message I wish to project. It’s a slow process, but it’s my dream.”
One of a few
It was seeing so many black ballerinas, starting with her sister, that gave Whitney confidence to become one herself.
As a little girl in South Carolina, her classes were filled with mostly black students. It’s all she knew until she advanced her training. That’s when it became clear she would be one of a very few in the room.
“It was shocking to me but it wasn’t discouraging,” she says. “It was eye-opening. Just because people don’t look like me doesn’t mean it’s not for me. It wasn’t like, well, I can’t do this.”
At 16, she was the only black girl in a summer program with the Boston Ballet. The challenge drove her to push harder.
That next summer brought a life-changing dance experience. She was with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a school founded shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. with the mission to teach children in the community about dance and the arts.
It was there she saw flesh tone tights and flesh tone shoes for everyone. A celebration of all shades.
“It was so enlightening,” she tells me between rehearsals. “I saw this show they did at the Lincoln Center (“St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet”). They were gorgeous. There were so many body types and colors up there. It was so beautiful. Everybody was so happy with the show afterward and my heart was full. I really knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Next stop: Indiana University. She was one of two black women in the ballet program. There were three black males. By the time she graduated with bachelor’s degrees in ballet and psychology and joined Ballet West in Salt Lake City, she knew the truth. The lack of diversity is a recurring narrative in ballet.
“It can be a little bit lonely in a sense,” Whitney says. “It’s not that I am not friends with all of the people. But sometimes I do look around and notice I am the only person of color in the room. A lot of times it doesn’t matter. It’s not a hindrance. But I have been in situations where I wasn’t noticed or paid attention to and it has popped in my head, is it because I’m black?”
The key, she says, is to remember you belong there. When aspiring ballerinas ask her about the black experience in the ballet, she tells them, yes it’s difficult.
“You do feel like the minority,” Whitney says. “But if you’re not there, nobody’s there. It shouldn’t be, ‘But I am the only one here.’ It should be, ‘I am here.’ ”
‘From the ground up’
And it’s not enough to see black ballerinas. There has to be access to the ballet and training.
“I was really lucky to be given these training opportunities to get the attention of a dance company,” Whitney says. “It’s very expensive to do. It’s very hard to do.” She was lucky to attend South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a free, public boarding school for rising artists.
“If you are from the inner city and your parents don’t have the money and there’s no scholarships, there’s no way you can get up to the company without the training.”
Perhaps this is why people of color are often surprised and in awe when Whitney tells them what she does for a living.
“It’s a very different job anyway,” she says. “So I get that kind of reaction from anyone but specially people of color. It’s a wow moment. There’s a pride. They see that’s my job and I made it.”
The polling site FiveThirtyEight estimates raising a professional dancer can cost up to $100,000. Even toddler classes start at $600 a year at top-notch schools.
Carney says the Kansas City Ballet is making a commitment to combat the costs through Reach Out And Dance (ROAD), a dance residency program for elementary school students.
“You have to start from the ground up,” Carney tells me during a “Nutcracker” rehearsal intermission. “Making ballet and dance in general accessible to all socioeconomic backgrounds is an absolute necessity.”
For Carney, that meant diversity couldn’t simply be on stage. It had to be in administration, too. He brought on education and community engagement manager April Berry. Berry is a master teacher, director and an acclaimed former principal dancer for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In one year, she expanded ROAD from 10 schools to 26.
And now students who exhibit a special gift for dance will spend two hours one day a week at the Kansas City Ballet for advanced training.
“I have always tried to create an understanding of what access, inclusion and equity really look like,” says Berry. “Those three words sound alike but you can have access and not be included or treated equally.”
Berry came to Kansas City because she saw promise in the ballet here.
“Devon is one of those people who walks his talk,” Berry says. “When the curtain opens this is making a huge impression. And through our partnerships in the community and with the schools, we are seeing more Hispanic, Asian and African-American students. There are kids of all colors and backgrounds coming to see the shows, and Devon really gets it. When they see themselves on stage they can see themselves in the company.”
Whitney will be helping Berry teach ROAD students in January. But right now, Berry is celebrating Whitney’s moment as Snow Queen.
“Black women have been stereotyped,” Berry says. “There is colorism and body shaming and there has been a ceiling. There’s the idea that a brown body breaks up the white ballets like ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Gisele.’ … We can do anything on pointe like the other dancers do.”
Whitney, like Misty Copeland, represents a smashing of that ceiling. Just because the white ballets require white costuming doesn’t mean a brown body can’t add to their beauty.
And Berry says Whitney brings a special something.
“Whitney’s personality comes through on stage,” Berry says. “You know you can’t teach that. Beyond her technique, there is a warmth and awareness. She knows who she is and where she comes from. There are ballerinas who may be great technically and may look beautiful on stage. But to have that special charisma that passes over the orchestra and into the audience is something that has to come from within.”
This Snow Queen will melt your heart.
Jeneé Osterheld is a Kansas City culture columnist,@jeneeinkc.
See Whitney dance
Whitney Huell will be in all of “The Nutcracker” shows in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 24. Here are her featured performances: See her as the Snow Queen at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13, 2 p.m. Dec. 21 and 1 p.m. Dec. 24. See her in “Arabian” at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16, 20 and 21. Tickets are $34-$140.50 through kcballet.org.
More about Whitney
Traveling woman: When she’s not rehearsing or on stage, she’s on an adventure. Over the summer she and her boyfriend took a road trip from Kansas City to Nashville.
KC appetite: After a long day of work, she likes a big dinner, preferably a pulled pork sandwich and fries from Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. But she likes Q39, too.
Girl power: The last two movies she loved were “Wonder Woman” and “Atomic Blonde.”
About that Kennedy Center performance: When the KC Ballet performed “Nutcracker” in Washington, D.C., last month, she was in the corps and loved it. “It was lovely being on that stage. It’s a really big stage.”