Being a Black male ballet dancer has been no easy feat, but it never stopped Maurice Mouzon Jr.
Despite being teased and criticized, Mouzon’s love for dance and determination trumped negativity.
Mouzon is a professional dancer with Charlotte Ballet. He has participated in training with the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as well as the notable Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Mouzon joined the company when he was 19 and faced a number of challenges to become a professional dancer.
Why it matters: Approximately 22.2% of American ballet dancers are male, according to data published by Zippia. Of that number, about 4% are Black.
The Baltimore native knew early on that he wanted to dance. He said he even taught himself gymnastics moves as a child.
A teacher at his middle school heard about Mouzon’s dance abilities and asked him to perform. Amazed at what she saw, Mouzon said the teacher encouraged him to enroll at Baltimore School for the Arts.
Initially skeptical, classmates also encouraged Mouzon.
While there, Mouzon polished his dance skills, helping him land a full scholarship to State University of New York at Purchase, a public liberal arts college.
In his freshman year of college, Charlotte Ballet Artistic Director Jean Pierre Bonnefoux visited Mouzon’s school to recruit senior dancers. Bonnefoux took a special interest in Mouzon and offered him a position at Charlotte Ballet.
At the time, Mouzon said he was skeptical of the offer because he wasn’t an experienced dancer yet, but after fellow classmates encouraged him to accept, he did.
And at age 19, Mouzon joined Charlotte Ballet II, Charlotte Ballet’s second company that helps the organization get to know someone as a dancer. He was later promoted to first company, where he dances today.
Over the course of his career, Mouzon, 26, has found that being a Black male dancer — representing just four percent of professional ballet dancers — can be challenging. Mouzon said he’s faced criticism, microaggressions and other challenges unique to being a Black man in dance.
QCity Metro spoke with Mouzon about his experiences as a ballet dancer, obstacles he’s had to overcome and what he hopes to accomplish in the profession.
Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What have your experiences been like as a Black man in dance?
When I would go to auditions for summer intensives like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Dance Theatre of Harlem is where I would meet Black dancers. At places like the City Ballet, it was predominantly white, and I would walk in with Timbs and a hoodie on, not looking like a dancer. People would look at me like, ‘Are you supposed to be here?’ And then just telling people that I’m a dancer would make them assume I’m a stripper. When I started ballet, it was even more of a shock to people because I have to wear tights, and it’s not a style of dance that is common in the Black community.
What unique challenges have you faced in this profession?
The first challenge was some of the comments that instructors used to make about me. Teachers would comment on my feet, and one, in particular, told me that I don’t have great feet and that my feet were made for cotton picking because they are wide. Another teacher told me that my butt was so big that they could sit a table on it and drink tea off it. In my mind, I’m like, “What is up with this body obsession?”
But ballet originated in Europe, so dancers normally have a slim build. I was also told that I should be in Jazz dance or African dance because I’m muscular. Teachers would tell me I needed to slim down or work on my feet, and it would drive me insane and make me feel like I wasn’t good enough. It took me believing in myself and developing a strong mind to stick it out.
What has kept you dancing, despite these challenges?
I love dance so much, and it has always felt like freedom to me; I didn’t want to let that go. When I dance, I’m showing you what’s happening in my mind, and I think it’s a privilege to be vulnerable with the audience in this way. I’ve also become a teacher, and I want to share my knowledge and skill with the next generation of dancers. Representation also matters to me.
Talk to me about your transition to Charlotte Ballet.
It was definitely a culture shock. When I got here, there was evenly cut green grass, no cracks in the pavement and smells of fresh air, and I just felt like I could take a deep breath and just live. I also had to get used to random people on the street greeting me. I joined Charlotte Ballet when I was 19, and I was around a number of married people with kids. And I felt like I couldn’t be myself because I had to put on this persona to show that I was mature. Everyone also knew each other, so I sometimes felt excluded.
I didn’t have a car, so after dance, I was dragging my feet because I had to walk home. I also had to get a second job as a stagehand and wouldn’t get home from that job until 1 a.m. and have to be at ballet at 8:30 a.m. So it’s definitely had its ups and downs, but now, I’m a full-time dancer and have grown close with the others.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
When people hear my name, I want them to think, ‘Oh wow, that boy can dance.” And I want to show people that it doesn’t matter where you come from because if you have a clear vision of what you want to do in life, you can always achieve it with hard work and dedication. I want to set an example for my siblings and, eventually, have my own dance company or a foundation where I can gift scholarships to people.
Mouzon’s next performance will be at Charlotte Ballet’s Choreographic Lab in June.
For more information, visit: https://charlotteballet.org/choreographic-lab-22-23/