Meet Lauren Anderson: The First African-American Principal for the Houston Ballet

As we come to a close on Black History month and enter Women’s History Month we want to celebrate women who have made history and have created some #BlackGirlMagic. Houston native, Lauren Anderson started dancing at the Houston Ballet Academy when she was seven. While Anderson was in elementary school she explored other creative outlets such as music. Unfortunately, her parents could not afford both music and dance lesson, prompting Anderson to choose between the two. She picked dance because she felt like she could “pick up a violin later.” Although she did not plan on becoming a ballerina, by following her passion and putting in hard work and being dedicated to her craft, Anderson became the first African American Principal dancer for the Houston Ballet.

The Source: For people who aren’t familiar with you, who is Lauren Anderson?

Lauren Anderson: I’m a product of HISD [Houston Independent School District] so I graduated from Lamar Sr. High. People also ask me why did I go to Lamar instead of HSPVA [Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts]. Well, its because my father was the assistant principal and he said he was fighting battles for kids over there when it came to his daughter he would have to kill somebody so it was best if I didn’t go. Actually, that was smart because there is a grade that you have to get at Christmas time that’s a huge project and it interferes with The Nutcracker. I was in Houston’s very first Nutcracker. If you want to be a ballerina in the Houston Ballet, you need to be seen as much as possible. I credit a lot of my dance career to my dad, my parents but, specifically my dad. He was always very supportive. He was smart about decision making. He would say, you need to get good grades because you are an athlete and you aren’t going to dance forever. I grantee you will not dance forever. So with all that said, I graduated from Lamar and in 1990 I became the first African American Principal Dancer at the Houston Ballet. Very few ballerinas anywhere. Then I retired at 41 and stopped dancing completely at 44 and now I work in education and community.

Let’s talk about when you became the first African-American Principal for the Houston Ballet because when you really think about, you’ve made history.

At that time I was just doing what I loved to do. I’ve been giving the gift of passion. Let’s be real, I knew when I was in the academy and that no one else looked like me. I got that. Expect Toni Lastabes, who still didn’t look like me because she is beige. So no, I didn’t think of making history.

So you didn’t feel any pressure?

Not until I got in the company. Actually no, when Sandra Organ, who is actually the first African American woman in the Houston Ballet. I will never forget. We had become soloists and we got promoted. When you get in you are an apprentice, then core member, then soloist. When you get to soloist level, you get to have a bio well, Sandra asked should she put that she was the first African American ballerina in the Houston Ballet and I was like yes because it was supposed to be me. She came in two summers before and got in the company. I thought it should have been me because I’ve been here and put in my dues. I wasn’t bitter about it. I was like yeah girl, let everybody know. Then when I became a principal dancer, she was so proud of me. I was really happy that I became a principal dancer. I wasn’t thinking about the impact until after the fact. Then I realized, especially when I retired. When I retired from Dance Theatre  Harlem, there weren’t any jobs for black ballerinas. I did an interview with The New York Times, Where Have All The Black Swans Gone? I was like woah, there is a deficit. It really kind of sunk in when I started working in the community. I’ve always worked in the community, I’ve always felt like I’ve been a bridge to the community. I’ve always been in that position which is awesome starting back with Ben Stevenson. He said to me it’s important for Houston to see you. I’ve never understood the weight and depth of that until I stopped dancing.

Why is it important for black girls to see someone who looks like them?

It’s important to me because you don’t know until you know. When I was nine years old, I saw Dance Theatre of Harlem for the very first time. I’ll never forget seeing that first black ballerina run across the stage. My mom said I literally moved to the edge of my seat. Then I saw another one, and another one, and I turned to my mom and said, mom, there is a whole stage full of them. Then I saw someone do Firework, and I was like mom, I want to be here. So you don’t know until you know. Representation is why I thought I could be a ballerina.

What are your thoughts on diversity and how it has played a  role in the Houston Ballet?

I was blessed with an organization that was very supportive of my situation. This is a European Art form which means it’s really really white and everything is expected to look a certain way. Especially back in the ’70s. Ben Stevenson was really clear in 1983 when I was hired. He said you are going to have to look better than everybody else. Houston needs to get used to you. Yes, they have seen you in the Nutcracker but that’s different. You are about to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Houston Ballet caught the heat but I didn’t realize that until the 90s. The Houston Ballet has been at the forefront of hiring minorities. Now with diversity, equity, and inclusion that’s been put out, especially in dance companies,  I’m proud to say and Houston Ballet is proud to say, we’ve been hiring African-Americans since 1976.

Have you ever thought about doing any other type of dancing like choreography or back up dancing for examples?

Everybody wanted to be a backup dancer. I had the towel on my head and the microphone. What I thought is that I would end up on Broadway. Well, I can sing but I can’t sang and you know how it is. I could hold a tune but that means you need to be in the back in the chorus. I’ve always wanted to stand in Carnegie Hall in a gorgeous gown with a blue light singing jazz standards. I’ve always wanted to do that. But another type of dance, no. I think it’s because I’ve trained so hard at something that is so hard that it’s so specific. I want to be able to move in any type of way.  I’ve always wanted to be a classical ballerina.

In glad you mentioned training, can we talk about the physical routine you use to keep you in shape?

It’s funny. I started late. A lot of people start training at three, four, our five at creative movement. You don’t put a three-year-old in the army. Ballet and the army are alike because you are learning repetition. That’s why it’s so boring to some people. You want to be perfect but you are never perfect. It’s good but not perfect. It can always be better. It could always be more of something. You start slow like piano lessons learning your foot positions. Then you get the hang of it and it four years you have to learn it all over again in toe shoes. You don’t start out on your toes. The body isn’t strong enough for that. So once you learn it flat, you learn it up. You never stop training. The company is always taking a class to get better because if you don’t use it, you will lose it. It’s like if you don’t go to the gym for a week, that first day back in the gym is a mofo. It’s hard. So imagine that with perfecting footwork positions and arm positions.

I’ve watched clips of Beyonce’s choreographer Ashley talk about their training process too. It sounds like a lot of physical work    

If you were one of Beyonce’s back up dancers or Janet Jackson’s back up dancers, you are working six hours and its choreography and it’s a style, and you can take a class. There is an actual technique to doing eight counts. There is a technique to all of that. People think that its all just fun but, you know.

Let’s shift gifts for a little bit, your shoes from your last performance in The 2006 Nut Cracker were put on display in 2016 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American Culture in DC. What was that moment like for you?

You say it and I get chills. It was overwhelming. To say that I am honored would not do it justice. The coolest thing was Lawernce, my son because for him to go his history teacher was like you need to take pictures and with your mother’s shoes. So, when we went, we got a chance to go in before, because I didn’t know if we were going to be able to take pictures. They let us in and Usher was supposed to come in after us so Lawerance was like, I want to wait for Usher. I was like dude, we are going in here for you. Once we got in we went to the sports floor. The museum is amazing. It will make you laugh, cry, and feel the ancestors. For my son to see my shoes and says that’s my mama. My grandkids can come see. Just the thought of my great-great grandchildren can come to see their great-great-grandmother in a place for us. So how do I feel, I feel amazed, overwhelmed, I can’t believe it but it was there. I can see it. People still send me pictures. It was definitely beside having my son, one of the most amazing things I’ve accomplished.

A lot of people would consider this a huge goal, can you talk about the difference between achieving goals and living in your purpose?      

That wasn’t a goal. That was something that happened to me. Just like becoming the first African-American Principal. My goal was to get in the Houston Ballet. My dream was to be like a soloist. I had no idea that I would become a principal and I had no idea that it would have an impact. On my tombstone, I want it to say She Had An Impact. I work with kids, I get to do that now. My career is amazing and I’m really grateful for it and it allows me to do what I do now. I get to work with children who people would have more an opportunity to fail than the opportunity to succeed. I get to make them feel their worth and that’s huge.

In 2017 you received the Texas Medal of Arts Awards in dance how was that?

That was pretty amazing too. One of the people I’ve always looked up to and a good friend of mine Debbie Allen was the first recipient of that award in dance from the Texas Medal of Arts. So but to get it from your state is pretty amazing. But guess what, I get to host it, I’m the MC in a couple of weeks. I’m still riding that wave. I was so shocked when they asked me. We were at a kick off party because I announced some of the other winners at the press conference here. So that evening they had an event and before I left they asked me would I accept the honor of the MC? I looked at them like are you sure? Don’t you need someone famous like Debbie Allen, because she hosted last year? They were like no, we, have you.

If you could describe dance in three words, what would they be and why?

Joy because it feels good. I love it. I love to dance and movement. It’s like the breath of life. Freedom because once you do it and its right and with the music. It’s like becoming music. If you can feel like what it is to become music that’s what it is. Pleasure because the way you learn to dance is by being just torn down. Then you get built back up again. Then you beat it back down and build it back up. It’s not healthy psychologically because you are very critical but for some reason. When I’m dancing I’m okay and everything about me is okay.

Lastly, I hear you have a show called #LATastings where you give dessert reviews.

I love me some sweets. I’m a passionate person and those senses, taste, smell, hearing. That’s why I love to dance because you get all of that with dance. With food, its just something about, okay my mother is a great cook. My stepmother is a great cook. I love food and I love dessert. We are going to try to do some other tastings because I’m a health nut too. I have a serious sweet tooth.

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