As a dancer, Raven Barkley understands the power of gestures, symbols and movement. All literally guide her life’s journey. She says the poetry of Amanda Gorman and the election of Kamala Harris as vice president show young people of color — all people, really — that they can dream big.
“We still have a lot more work to do as a nation but this is definitely a start,” Barkley, who performs with the Charlotte Ballet, said in a recent interview. “I’ve seen a change in the confidence of our younger generation and how the stars in their eyes light up knowing that they can do that too. They can be in these leadership roles, they can sit at the table, they can discuss the topics that need to be discussed to make a change in our society.”
“I am a firm believer that representation matters,” she said. “If we don’t see women of color or even people of color in these positions, these leadership positions, then we don’t see what the possibility is.”
African-American mentors play a significant role in Barkley’s life. She trained at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City, a company founded by Arthur Mitchell, the first Black principal dancer in the New York City Ballet. The Harlem company is the world’s first Black classical ballet company, and she credits its leaders, Andrea Long, Virginia Johnson, and Robert Garland, for their role in mentoring her.
Her mother was her first mentor, Barkley said, encouraging her to enroll in middle school at Ballet Tech, New York City’s school for dance, and then at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. Later, as an undergraduate at Purchase College, Barkley was the only female dancer of color in her program.
“I was taught at Dance Theatre of Harlem to be this successful ballerina of color. Because it’s a legacy, Mr. Mitchell did something really instrumental for our community, and I want to be that conduit that keeps it going.”
Beyond her work with the Charlotte Ballet, which she joined in 2015, Barkley mentors young dancers through the PointePeople Mentorship Program. Videoconferencing means they’re not always in Charlotte. The program enables her to give advice and help make connections for young dancers. Barkley is now in her mid-20s.
Charlotte Ballet is pushing for diversity on stage, Barkley said. Until recently, dancers of color had to dye tights and “pancake” their shoes — a process of applying make-up or lotion. But the company now helps dress dancers of color in attire to match skin tone.
“We get to wear skin tone tights on stage, which has been a nice, beautiful change,” Barkley said. “I just had a pointe shoe meeting and we were talking about how it’s nice to see me in skin tone tights. I thoroughly felt, it’s kind of cliché but so much more comfortable in my skin doing classical roles where I have shoes that are my skin tone.”
Barkley said her role as an artist and leader in ballet can help educate others, and she hopes she has the potential to bring about social change through dance, in a similar way as Gorman, who recited one of her poems at President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“She really got to the point of what needs to be done, and it was just done so creatively,” Barkley said. “I think ballet also has the power, dance has the power to change society.”
Makhaila Anderson of Franklin, N.C., is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication, which provides the Queens University News Service in support of local community news.