Local ballerinas transform dance into advocacy

Left to right: Brown Ballerinas For Change was founded in 2019, by co-founders Sophia Chambliss, Ava Holloway, Kennedy George and Shania Gordon. Photo by Michel Maulding

Annie Phan, Contributing Writer 

Four ballerinas who garnered viral attention this summer after dancing under Richmond’s iconic statue of Robert E. Lee are tapping international recognition to raise funds for their non-profit organization, Brown Ballerinas for Change. 

“We wanted this to be not just a moment but a movement, and to be able to give back to people who aren’t as fortunate,” dancer and co-founder Kennedy George said. 

Brown Ballerinas for Change, or BBFC, aims to utilize dance as advocacy, while also promoting diversity and inclusion within the dance community.

The organization fundraises for scholarships that help dancers from underrepresented communities pay for classes, shoes and other expenses. So far, the scholarship has been awarded to two recipients. 

“For me, being a part of it is just knowing you’re a part of something bigger than yourself,” George said, “and that you can inspire others to be a role model for others, regardless of age or race.”

The co-founders started the group in response to discourse concerning Richmond’s Confederate statues. A photograph by local freelance photojournalist Julia Rendleman depicted George and co-founder Ava Holloway on Lee’s graffiti-covered memorial in Marcus-David Peters Circle. Rendleman posted the photo to Instagram in early June, and it now has more than 74,000 likes.

“When everything was going down near the statues, I saw my schoolmates posting ‘these riots need to stop’ and ‘these people are ruining everything,’” dancer and co-founder Sophia Chambliss said. “But they don’t understand how maddening the situation is.”

After noticing negativity surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement online and from their peers, the dancers said they wanted to bring about change in an artistic, positive and peaceful way. 

“People can’t get mad at dancing,” Chambliss said. “We’re not hurting anyone or anything, we’re just promoting our message.” 

The group has performed at the Henrico Justice Student March and the Virginia Freedom Rally, and the dancers were featured on “Today.” 

“Hopefully … our message and overall mission statement will help diversify dance and make it accessible for everyone no matter the funds, no matter anything.” — Ava Holloway

Chambliss, a high-school senior preparing for college, hopes to expand BBFC locally and at the university she attends.

“Our dances aren’t necessarily for this certain thing,” Chambliss said. “They could be about growth and change, so I think we could keep this thing going on for a while.” 

In the future, the organization hopes to host its own events with guest dancers and speakers. The dancers also hope to fundraise for more dance scholarships. 

Whatever happens, we’ll be celebrating the things we’ve been changing through dance, or we’ll still be providing a message through dance,” Chambliss said. “We’ll have a good future regardless.” 

The four co-founders met while attending a late-night class at Central Virginia Dance Academy.

Co-founder and dancer Shania Gordon credits their ability to connect with one another to their mutual love for dance and the unifying messages they convey through their performances. 

“During rehearsals, we’re always focused, but we’re also talking a lot and connecting to each other even more,” Gordon said. “It’s fun because we’re dancing, doing what we love, and we’re sending a message as well.”

Gordon’s passion for dance was inspired by professional ballerina Misty Copeland’s performances as the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. 

“I started dancing seven years ago and I saw Misty Copeland and was like ‘Wow, she’s really pretty and really amazing at dancing,’ and I really wanted to do a type of sport to stay active,” Gordon said. 

Holloway emphasized the importance of persevering through challenges and relying on one’s dance support system. She said dancers often experience mental health issues and internal insecurities.

Holloway said the group is a “tight knit community” and “very positive” when they are around each other.

“Hopefully … our message and overall mission statement will help diversify dance and make it accessible for everyone no matter the funds,” Holloway said, “no matter anything.”

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