February is International Month of Black Women in the Arts. Black women contribute to all sectors of art—from literature, fine arts and performing arts to culinary arts—but sometimes the behind-the-scenes work that it took to break barriers in the community are not known to everyone.
Paula Brown, founder and artistic director of Paula Brown Performing Arts Center (PBPAC) is a noteworthy trailblazer. She remains on a mission to expand the representation of Black and brown ballerinas. Brown’s concentration is classical ballet.
“Since I started [my school] in 2014, I would probably say I’ve taught over 1000 girls,” Brown said, speaking about her Prince George’s County, Maryland based school.
Ballet students range from three to 17 years old. Brown’s students come from around the beltway including Baltimore, Columbia, other parts of Maryland and Virginia.
“I consider myself like a hidden diamond, a hidden jewel. A lot of people don’t really know that I exist, but everything in timing, people are starting to know,” Brown said.
Brown grew up studying classical ballet in a ballet school located in Washington, D.C. called Jones-Haywood School of Dance. It was the only Black ballet school in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, according to Brown. She later danced with Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble. Her career took her to the West Coast.
“Debbie Allen brought me to L.A. [Los Angeles] to do the TV show “Fame,” so it started there. And then from there, Janet Jackson was on the show, so I got to do her Control video and work with her. Paula Abdul was her choreographer. So, then I got to work with Paula Abdul and do her tour and do her movies that she choreographed like “Coming to America,” “Running Man” and then also I was in Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” I was a dance double for the Josephine Baker movie,” Brown said, noting some of her career highlights.
As a Black woman working in the entertainment industry, a lot of rejection accompanied Brown’s career in dance. The ambitious professional never stopped auditioning and believing in herself while continuing to strive to accomplish her dreams.
Brown still takes big leaps. She is a professor of classical ballet at Bowie State University and also makes time to give opportunities to create more opportunities for Black and brown girls through ballet.
“It starts off with training and technique, so it’s very important. My students learn classical ballet. I’m Vaganova certified. That means I have a certification in Vaganova technique, which is a Russian ballet,” Brown said.
After having the training, some of Brown’s students danced for Kansas City Ballet at The Kennedy Center and New York City Ballet at The Kennedy Center. Others ventured to study at American Ballet Theater in New York after auditioning. Those spaces where Brown’s ballet dancers gained entry are predominantly white.
Writing a book called “Brown Ballerinas First Steps” is another leap that Brown took in December of 2022.
“It tells a story of a young girl’s first experience in a ballet class,” Brown said.
Brown also added Artist-in-Residence at The Kennedy Center to her resume. The ballet program, Brown Ballerinas Dream Big will be held July 10-14, 2023. Auditions will be held for it on February 26, 2023. The one-week dance workshop will allow participants to receive training from notable celebrity artist ballerinas. Brown will instruct younger ages and serve as the program director.
Nanichi Vargas, 21, teaches ballet part time at PBPAC. Vargas mentioned that Brown was one of her first ballet teachers. Vargas enjoys working at Brown’s school and has “definitely gained a sense of purpose” by working with students there. She wants to help it flourish.
“I’m really happy. It feels like home because these kids that I’m working with are growing up in the same kind of areas that I am and they’re brown. And it just feels like how I started out, so it’s almost like a full circle,” Vargas said.
She feels that representation of Black and brown women in ballet is important. Vargas stated that kids need to see themselves in a more established form through observing relatable examples “so that they are reassured that it’s something they can do.”
Visit www.paulabrownpac.com for more information about Brown’s school and children’s book.