Every year, Juilliard, the renowned fine arts school in New York, admits only a dozen male dancers. This fall, five of them will come from a single school – Booker T. Washington in Dallas. That’s unprecedented.
They say the day they got accepted into Juilliard still feels like a dream.
“I dropped my phone,”says Ricardo Hartley. “I screamed, and I ran into my living room and started crying.”
“I had a mouthful of cereal. I got the call, answered it, and I was choking, trying to swallow,” Zane Unger says.
For Michael Garcia, the moment was sweet relief.
“You receive a call with a New York area code, and you’ve been waiting years and especially since your audition, just anxiously awaiting this phone call,” he says. “And I remember I didn’t cry or scream or anything, I just sat down in silence, and I was like, ‘I just got into Juilliard.’”
Juilliard accepts only 12 male dancers from around the world each year. Kate Walker, the dance coordinator at Booker T. Washington, says the high school does have a legacy of excellence.
“But it’s really a coup to have as many men from one department,” Walker said. “In 2014, we had four dancers – two men and two women – go to Juilliard. But truly to have five men in one year is really unheard of.”
Juilliard confirmed it’s never admitted that many dancers from one school before. In 2014, the school also admitted an actor from Booker T. Washington.
Each dancer has a unique story. Garcia started dancing when he was seven years old, and he moved to Dallas from South Texas to pursue it. Hartley was a late bloomer, picking up dance at 13. Unger, once a clumsy baby, used dance to find balance.
Kade Cummings followed in his sister’s footsteps: “I just tagged along with her,” he says “and I got interested watching the classes, and I was like ‘Hey I can do that too!’”
And Todd Baker started dancing when he was nine, after cycling through several other hobbies. Dancing, to him, felt natural.
“It feels natural to me just like it might feel natural to someone else who loves to write or loves to sing,” Baker says. “As opposed to using words, I feel like I can use my body language and the way I move to express my thoughts.”
A journey of struggle and sacrifice
The guys say Juilliard is the ultimate affirmation for young dancers, but getting in didn’t come without struggle. Some of them had financial hardships – sometimes weighing whether to pay for dance classes or pay for another meal or two. Both Hartley and Garcia uprooted from their hometowns to study dance in Dallas. For Garcia, it was tough to dance freely back in South Texas, where he said Mexican culture discouraged it.
“Dancing was just something little girls did as a hobby,” he says. “I think my mother was worried about what other people would think.”
Garcia is not alone. Male dancers continue to face stigma that challenges their masculinity.
“At least for the five of us, I’m sure there was a point where all of us went through that teasing and that bullying and thought, ‘is this really something I want to do for the rest of my life? Is this something I want to deal with for the rest of my life?’” he says.
For Hartley, that conflict was even closer to home.
“My father had the biggest problem with it,” Hartley says. “You don’t see a lot of black male dancers, and so it came to the point where my dad hated it so much, my dad would make me late to rehearsals. He wouldn’t take me to dance class.”
He says that relationship helped him realize that going to Juilliard means much more than just an education.
“For me to say that a black man who started dancing at a late age can make it this far and can keep going, it’s like I can be an inspiration for other black kids,” he says. “It just feels unreal in that my voice is finally being heard.”
See more pictures of the dancers at artandseek.org.