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Everyday Heroes: Angela Harris

Dance Canvas

Angela Harris understands well the travails of being the only Black ballerina in a ballet company.

“I’m a former professional Black ballet dancer, so one of the big things for me is trying to assist with making the path easier for the next generation,” she says.

Harris is executive artistic director and the founder of Dance Canvas, an Atlanta-based organization that provides resources for career building and leadership development for emerging choreographers and dance artists.

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Angela Harris

Credit: Photo Courtesy of Angela Harris

She trained at the Baltimore School for the Arts, under the eye of Sylvester Campbell, a trailblazing dancer known as the “Black Nureyev” whose career was largely based in Europe and Canada. In 1996, when Harris auditioned for a college ballet program, she discovered her audition sheet critique read, “Excellent Negro dancer.” She was not only taken aback that the term “Negro” was still being used, but understood that she was being categorized by her race rather than her skill.

After college, she joined South Carolina’s Columbia City Ballet, the only Black person in an organization of 50 people. Harris says she was told on a regular basis that she was “their Black girl” and faced consistent micro-aggressions.

The ballet world evolved through European and Russian aristocracy, and has largely embraced its traditions over diversity. It took American Ballet Theatre, one of the top three classical ballet companies in the United States, 75 years to promote its first African American woman to principal dancer: Misty Copeland in 2015.

When Harris came to Atlanta and founded Dance Canvas in 2008, she observed that the city’s dance community was largely segregated, both in terms of artists and the audiences who saw performances. One of her goals with Dance Canvas was to try to make some of those lines disappear, and it has proven a monumental challenge.

“We’re having the same conversations that we had 20 years ago when I entered the professional dance field,” Harris says. “I am disheartened, as somebody who loves this industry, that we haven’t made a lot of progress.”

Harris has become a role model and mentor to aspiring Black dancers and choreographers. She is an instructor at the Dekalb School for the Arts and teaches at three Atlanta area universities. In partnership with Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, she helped develop the CATALYST program to provide training to young Black dancers and help build diversity within the Terminus organization.

CATALYST began in 2021 with five scholarships to the company’s dance school, and Dance Canvas paired each of those students with a mentor for support and inspiration.

Harris and John Welker, co-founder and director of Terminus, hope to build the program to 20 annual scholarships. And they hope CATALYST can become a model that is replicated in other regions of the country.

“There is an obligation for the ballet world to diversity,” Harris says. “For the sake of growing new audiences, but also for the sake of representing what this art form should be, in America and beyond. We should all be able to see ourselves onstage.”

HOW TO HELP

For more information on Dance Canvas, visit https://www.dancecanvas.com/home.


WE’RE STRONGER TOGETHER: A SPECIAL PROJECT

This place we call home is filled with ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary feats. Their selfless acts make this region so special – and they bring out the best in all of us. With the holidays upon us, we wanted to share their inspiring stories, celebrate their accomplishments, and offer ways that you can help.

Just as the 55 people we’re profiling can’t do it alone, nor can we. That’s why we worked closely with our partners to bring you this collection of uplifting stories.

We hope they leave you feeling inspired and ready to tackle the busy new year that lies ahead.

We hope they make you feel more connected to your community or to your neighbors.

And maybe, just maybe, they will motivate you to come up with your own small way to make a big difference in the lives of others.

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