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Brooklyn Mack, From Ball Player To Ballet Star


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, as we've kicked off our coverage of the Republican National Convention this week, we've asked a number of our guests what a successful country looks like to them. I'll explain why I'm asking that in my Can I Just Tell You essay. And that's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, a success story from the world of dance. Brooklyn Mack took up ballet when he was 12. He wasn't dreaming of performing in Swan Lake. He actually thought it would help his football game. But while he didn't make it to the NFL, he has made quite a name for himself in the world of ballet.

At 25, he's a principle dancer with the Washington Ballet, and just recently, he became the first African-American man to win a senior gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition held in Varna, Bulgaria. That competition is the oldest in the world, and it's been called the Olympics of ballet.

And we're happy to have ballet champion Brooklyn Mack join us for a Wisdom Watch conversation.

Welcome, and congratulations to you.

BROOKLYN MACK: Thank you. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So when you found out that you had won, can you just describe the moment for us?

MACK: It was surreal. I mean, it's been a dream of mine for a long time. So it was an amazing moment, a humbling, very honorific moment. It was amazing.

MARTIN: Do you get a medal? What do you get?

MACK: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: Do you get a medal?

MACK: I got a medal. Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. So do you wear it around? Are you wearing it now to rehearsals and stuff?

MACK: No. I'm not wearing it. Pretty much, all of my medals and awards, my mom snatches from me the moment I get it. She always thinks I'm going to lose it or something. So...

MARTIN: So she's similarly taken charge of this one?

MACK: Yeah.

MARTIN: Speaking of your mom, there's actually - I thought it was kind of a funny story about how you actually got into ballet. Right? Do you mind telling that story? The short version, as I understand it, that you...

MACK: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...you were only, what, trying to convince her to let you play football.

MACK: Yeah. I mean, growing up in South Carolina, I heard two things about ballet, and one, it's for sissies. I mean, that's putting it pretty nicely, actually. And the other was that it helped out with football, somehow. And my school took a field trip to see a gala ballet, you know, different excerpts of different ballets. And, you know, I wasn't too enthused about going to see a ballet of any kind at that time.

And I've been heavy into sports ever since I can remember. And, at the time, I was playing on the basketball team, and I really, really wanted to play football. Pretty much every time it came to tryout time, my mom would have some excuse as to why she couldn't take me or get me there. And, after a while, I deduced that she just didn't really want me playing football.

So I see this ballet gala, and I immediately identify with the athleticism of the male dancers. I was actually pretty blown away and floored by the athleticism. I mean, they were jumping, jumping out of the gym(ph), and doing all these turns and amazing athletic feats, and it wasn't at all what I had expected. I saw these guys, and I was like, well, if they're doing that from ballet, then if I take this, I'll be unstoppable in football because I was already good. I had a big head about football. I probably still do. I was already good. I always used to play backyard football with my friends after school. Some of them were on football teams, JV and varsity and stuff and...

MARTIN: You knew you had it.

MACK: ...couldn't nobody touch me.

MARTIN: That's right.

MACK: I knew I had it.

MARTIN: You knew you had it. So you go to this ballet school. So you ask for the tryout. Your mom is thrilled, but what you don't know is that she really wanted you to do ballet.

MACK: Yeah. When I asked her, like, the next day after the gala, I asked my mom, you know, about taking ballet lessons. She just gave me the strangest look, like, the strangest look. And I was like, oh, man, what is my momma thinking about me? Is she thinking I'm a sissy or something weird? Like, I had no idea what was going on through her head.

But, little did I know, like, immediately, she set out searching schools. And she searched every school in the area, and then she settled on Pavlovich Dance School, or Columbia Classical Ballet. She brought me in there about a week later, and she went up to the director and she said, I want you to look at my son for a scholarship, and he was really taken aback. He's a little, Yugoslavian man. And he said, well, we don't give scholarships. And she said, well, you haven't seen my son.

I was really taken aback myself, because I'm like, my mom's talking me up, and I've never even set foot in a ballet studio or done any kind of stuff like that. But I guess he was rather shocked, and so much so that he decided to give me a shot. And he took me back in the studio. I had some shorts and gym socks on and stuff, and he gave me what's called a barre, a series of exercises that you do while holding a barre. And I had, of course, no idea what I was doing at all.

But, after about 30 minutes, he came back out and he said, you know, his legs are pretty good. His turnout's all right. That's your rotation in your hips and legs. But his feet are terrible and if he wants to come on scholarship, he'll have to come six days a week. I don't know what possessed me to say yes, but I said all right. That's how I got started.

MARTIN: And then you came to find out that your mom had actually been a dancer but you didn't even know that.

MACK: Yes. Yes. About a month or two months in, my mom actually revealed to me that she had been a dancer - and ballet at that. And I'm the youngest of four siblings, so by the time I came around, she had given up on trying to get her kids to dance because she tried with all my other siblings before me to get them interested in dance, but nobody really took to it or stuck with it. So by the time I came around, she had given up hope, then here it comes that I actually come and ask her.

MARTIN: That's crazy.

MACK: I'm just...

MARTIN: You were sort of - been here before, didn't even know it. So what happened that here you are trying to be an aspiring football player. You never did make it to football, did you?

MACK: No. No. It was...

MARTIN: Now, how did that happen? Did they just take you over? What happened? Did you fall in love with it?

MACK: Yeah. I mean before I knew it, it snuck up on me. I always use this analogy like there's a vine called Wisteria and it just wraps around trees and engulfs them slowly; that's pretty much what ballet did to me. It took me over before I knew it. I mean I was going there six days a week but only like an hour every day. Then the rehearsals came and I was spending more time there. And then they told me I had to take this class - jazz class and whatnot. And then it really hit me about, I'll say about a year in, a year and a half in to doing this dance thing, just how much it had taken over my life.

MARTIN: What is it that you think just consumes you now?

MACK: I've always been someone who's thrived on challenge and to this day it's incredibly difficult. That's, I think, what really, really drew me into it because I had always excelled at everything I did physically, every physical activity, football, basketball, tae kwon do, soccer, what have you. Ballet, it wasn't that way.


MACK: I mean it's - and this art form basically, you know, really any art, but especially this art form, it's a pursuit of perfection and you can never be perfect, so day in and day out, you know, we train and we go back and start through the same exercises. It's one of the few art forms that you go back to the first exercises that you ever learned and you're doing them your entire career. You know, it was just that challenge, I think, that really, really drew me in initially, the challenge and the athleticism.

MARTIN: Well, I just mentioned that for people who have seen you perform, I mean you are known for incredible leaps, you know, your incredible - well, I don't know, athleticism is such a stereotype in black dancers, isn't it?

But I mean, but the fact is you have these like explosive leaps in turns, incredible precision. Does that about sum it up?

MACK: Um...

MARTIN: As well as onstage charisma.

MACK: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: Does that work? Does that summarize it for you?

MACK: I mean if that's what people are saying, I'll take that.


MARTIN: If you're joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Brooklyn Mack. He is a dancer with the Washington Ballet. He recently won a senior gold medal at the oldest international ballet competition in the world. And he was the first African-American male dancer to do this.

I would, if you don't mind, I would like to ask just about the whole question of being a prominent African-American male, you know, dancer in ballet. I mean, of course we know Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem and was a pioneering African-American male, classically trained dancer, before you. And there are, you know, a number of principals who are well-known that people will have seen. But it's still not an art form that is as diverse as so many others have become. And I wonder if that still poses a challenge for you in your career.

MACK: I think it poses a challenge for all African-Americans. I mean there's still so many barriers and stupid lingering stereotypes and misconceptions and, you know, just ignorant, you know, things like, oh, blacks can't do ballet because their bodies just physically can't conform to the constraints of the aesthetic restrictions of ballet, and stuff like that. It's just really ignorant. And there's, I think, just a lot of barriers to just - that need to be broken, and that's what I'm trying to do out here right now.

MARTIN: Is it the kind of the sexual orientation question or is it the, is it racial or is it both? I mean you fight - you feel like you're fighting, that there's still not the respect for male dancers? Do I mention, Mikhail Baryshnikov won the gold medal. The medal that you won, Mikhail Baryshnikov was a previous winner, so people will remember that name.

MACK: Yeah.

MARTIN: But do you think that there's still kind of a challenge around male dancers? Do you think African-Americans in particular, both?

MACK: When I was saying misconceptions and stereotypes, I was actually at that point more referring to the - actually within the ballet world. You know, the - some of the maybe directors of companies and stuff like that have those, may have some of those stereotypes and won't employ or, you know, give young African-American or black dancers a chance because of those things. But as far as like countrywide, of course, there's plenty, you know, plenty of still stereotypes. I mean I only started like, what, 12 or 13, I guess 13 years ago now, dancing, so that stuff hasn't died. But as far as fighting like, you know, sexual orientation stereotypes, that's one fight, but I mean that's not my main...

MARTIN: Issue, in your career.

MACK: I wouldn't say that's my main issue. Yeah.

MARTIN: But within your career, though, do you feel that the kind of racial stereotyping of what African-Americans are suited to is inhibiting your career? And I do wonder whether winning this medal will help that.

MACK: Oh, it most - I mean this is monumental. I mean you mentioned me being the first African-American to win the senior medal in the Varna, you know, competition. So it's huge. It's really huge. It's a huge acknowledgment and it's a huge step forward. So I think it definitely will help in my career, but not only in my career but I think it's going to help to open a lot of eyes and break those misconceptions.

MARTIN: What advice do you have for people who might be interested in ballet but don't necessarily fit into the image that people have of, you know, what a ballet dancer is or should look like?

MACK: I would just say: do you.


MACK: Be yourself and go for it. I think, but I think that carries over to everything, for every, every aspect of life. If you have a passion about something, go for it and don't let anybody tell you you can't. Don't let anybody tell you you can't, because I mean it's mind over matter and if you put your mind to something, you can do whatever you put your mind to. I'm a firm believer in that.

I remember my uncle telling me that when I was like three years old and never, it never got out of my mind, not for a second. I faced a lot of adversity. I faced, you know, plenty of people telling me that, that I couldn't dance classical ballet and stuff like that. And I mean I thrived on that, actually. I was -I just, I said thank you.


MACK: I couldn't wait for somebody to tell me no, that I couldn't do something just so I could, you know, get out there and show them wrong. So I would say, you know, go after whatever it is you want to do, whether it be ballet, you know, violin, whatever it is, go off - I mean break those barriers, do what you, do what you have a passion for.

MARTIN: Brooklyn Mack is a principal dancer with the Washington Ballet Company. He just finished his performance of "Alice" in Hawaii, and we caught up with him there in Honolulu at Hawaii Public Radio.

Thanks so much for joining us.

MACK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.