Brickbats and Tutus
by John Plimmer
” To be born to dance is true. It’s a condition. It’s in the cells; the tissues and in the essence of who you are.
Selfishness then becomes selflessness. “
There are very few people who are born with the type of natural musicality and rhythm that ballet requires. Those that are born with the talent often cannot endure the rigorous rehearsal schedules, the unmitigated discipline, nor the forever battered and bloody feet that are all part of ballet’s territory. There are even fewer who are willing to sacrifice relationships, having children, and sometimes even their own health to devote themselves to this special craft of dance that only a select few can survive and thrive in.
For Julie Felix, she had the talent — and an abundance of it. She had the fervent want and intense desire. She had the heart and she could withstand the pain with nothing more than a quiet wince. Julie was quite all right not having romantic entanglements because, if she was being honest, no love of a man could compete with the love she had for the ballet. She had every characteristic required of a prima ballerina.
But while Julie possessed everything critical to the making of a principal dancer, she had one thing working against her that she had absolutely no control over — the color of her skin. Born to a black father and a white mother, Julie was of mixed race and a rarity in the world of classical ballet during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Schools shut their doors in her faces, companies refused to give her work, and teachers turned their backs on her. Unfairly and unjustly, it did not matter her talents or accolades within the small dancing world; all that mattered was that she could not be a black swan in a sea of white ones.
” Julie didn’t have to wait long after returning the necessary documents and an invitation for an audition quickly landed on the floor of her parents’ hallway. Of course she was pleased with the result of her plan thus far, but some of those earlier doubts were still there, hiding the black faceless carrion crows in the depths of her mind, armed with only bad news. She became convinced the photographs of the ballet poses she had sent to Rambert with her application form, had been responsible for getting her the audition, which they had. But Julie believed the reason they had made their mark was only because, in the colorless snaps, she had resembled a white girl. “
In 2015, the beautifully graceful and incredibly elegant and staggeringly beautiful Misty Copeland made headlines across the nation when she was named as American Ballet Theatre’s first African American principal dancer in their 75 year history. Since her promotion to the most coveted spot held in any reputable dance company, Copeland has gone to be named a “most influential person” by Time Magazine, has written two successful books of her own, and has been a part of a documentary entitled “A Ballerina’s Tale”, which chronicles the working lives of several prominent black ballet dancers. One of the dancers featured in the documentary, Arthur Mitchell, was not only the first African American ballet dancer in a major ballet company, he was also the first principal dancer of color (in 1956, via the New York City Ballet). Mitchell eventually opened his own company, the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem, where Julie Felix would eventually find her dancing home.
But before she danced to an audience of people like King of Pop Michael Jackson, 80’s icon Prince, or the President of the United States and his First Lady, Julie was a young girl living in meager means in Ealing, West London, in England. At the tender age of 7, Julie was introduced to dance and was told she possessed a rare talent; the kind words laced with promises of how far she could go on her pointed toes. But as Julie was turned down by dance schools and eventually having to turn down a few in turn due to the lack of funds her family had, she became discouraged. Fortunately for her, her skill on the dance floor paired with tenacity and a scholarship landed her a place in the Rambert Ballet School, where she would spend several years carefully honing her craft on tiptoe.
” ‘What do you think you’re doing, English girl, your legs are too low, not turning out enough,’ and so on.
The criticisms never seemed to stop throughout her dance executions, but this was the new sustained Julie and she knew he was testing her, expecting her to evaporate beneath his throw away insults. Each time he spoke in the negative, Julie gave some more, she won every battle by showing Arthur Mitchell she did have what it takes and some more. This was a donkey ride at a seaside compared with what she’d been through. If only her father had been there to witness first-hand the level of resolve his youngest daughter possessed. The fire in those black eyes, thanks to Dame Beryl Gray, hadn’t left her, adding pulsating drama to the dancer’s story, leaving the other members of the company watching, flabbergasted and teased into the desire to see more.
The class finally came to an end and applause filled the studio, Julie never heard anything except her own frantic breathing, having given her all to that one performance, that one class. ”
Her biggest and brightest dream was to dance onstage as part of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, where the masters of her chosen passion awed their audience and took their bows to sold-out seats. But for Julie, she wasn’t sure this would ever become a reality, as there had never before been a black dancer for the most revered company in England. After trying to apply for several jobs in her home country, Julie took a chance and a job with the famed Arthur Mitchell and his dance troupe, all the way across The Pond in the heart of Harlem, New York. She left behind her mother and father, a sister and a casual boyfriend, packing her life into a suitcase and struggling to make her way around a city larger than life. Julie saw things she never thought she’d ever witness — a man gunned down in the streets before her, a stranger holding on for dear life to a window ledge as their apartment was engulfed in flames before them, a blizzard that shut down a city, and a city-wide blackout that resulted in riots and theft.
But at Dance Theatre of Harlem, Julie “The English Girl” was taken under Arthur Mitchell’s cantankerous wing and pressed to push harder and work longer. He rewarded her passionate and tireless perseverance by allowing her to naturally progress within the company, and she did her best to never let him down. As a member of his team, Julie traveled the world and saw war zones in Israel with her own eyes, felt earthquakes in California with her own two feet, and felt the stab of a production being shut down by rallying KKK members with every facet of her heart. For Julie, DTH gave her a home away from home and allowed her to grow as a dancer, but her heart always remained in England. Luckily for Julie, she eventually had a chance to go back home and grace the very stage that captured her spirit as a young girl.
” She stood alone on one of the biggest stages in the world, her back as straight as a rod with her head held high, in a phoenix like posture Her shiny shoulder length black hair reflected the subdued light sprinkling down from the overheads, resembling moonlight serenading the black Caspian Sea. The house lights in the auditorium were up, but the silence strangely portrayed a void which can only be experienced in an empty theatre. At that moment, her only companions were those of tingling nerve ends, apprehension, hopes and dreams, most of which had followed her throughout her young career. The young lady’s large glistening black eyes feasted on the fascinating grandeur of the huge theatre’s layers of balconies, stretching from ceiling to floor, supporting red and gold trimmed cushioned seats. The whole scene reminded her of a large multi-tiered birthday cake and she wondered whether all of its four thousand seats would be filled for that night’s Gala Performance. “
Brickbats and Tutus is a very easy and engaging novel by British author, John Plimmer. A departure from his previous career in police investigations and security consultations, the multi-faceted writer captured a glimpse into what it was like for a young black dancer struggling to find her place among the white swans in an era that was racially unjust and complicated. Readers ages 13 and up will enjoy gliding and leaping through the years with Julie Felix as she makes a journey led by her heart and spirit.
I give the novel 4.5 out of 5 stars and encourage readers of all backgrounds to check this book out. I was fascinated by everything Julie saw and went through as she met goal after goal. She lived her professional life as a dancer in a time where things were certainly not easy, but there was always a shimmer of magic on the outskirts of things. Her persistence and determination is awe-inspiring and admirable, and my only regret about this novel is that it ended without telling us what became of Julie in her years after her dancing career ended. I would have loved to have learned more about the years after dance, with her husband Joe, and if she ever got that family of her own that she wanted.