Clarence Brooks still remembers the day that he first saw the posters that had a photo of him dancing.
“Someone (or several people) … had plastered the N-word all over the posters,” he said.
Brooks, who was only in his second year of studying dance, had felt so honored to have been selected to perform a solo at an important fundraiser to be held at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City, but he was unaware that the poster advertising the event, which had been circulated all over the city, prominently featured a photo of him in the solo.
“My recollection is that the chair [of the dance department] and the choreographer witnessed me holding a poster and my tear-stained face and pulled me into the office to console me. The surprise and honor [I felt] was stifled by the shock of seeing that vitriolic word hurriedly scrawled across my face … It hurt to know that someone I studied with and knew would do this.
“But the all-white faculty held me up … they had my back. The gist of their pep talk was cry in private, but smile in public. They wanted me to be strong and above it all,” he said.
Now take a moment and imagine you have been training non-stop as a dancer for the last 13 years, and now it is your chance to perform at Lincoln Center in New York but, because of COVID-19, it doesn’t happen. All of New York City is shut down.
Madison Brown, who is only 16, said it was more than disappointing, it was “heartbreaking … I was just so shocked and disappointed. It was all I could think about … and then it was gone,” she said, speaking from her home in Wellington.
Maddie, as she is known, is a talented young dancer who was a strong contender for winning her division at the coveted New York City Finals of the most prestigious international dance competition for young dancers, Youth America Grand Prix, which is held each year during April at the David H. Koch Theatre in Lincoln Center. Just before the pandemic hit, Maddie had won first place in both the classical ballet and contemporary dance divisions at Youth America Grand Prix’s regional competition in Tampa.
Her dream is to dance with American Ballet Theatre, following in the steps of Misty Copeland, who has become the groundbreaking role model for many aspiring ballet dancers but particularly for those who are Black. Copeland broke an important racial barrier in the classical ballet world by becoming the first Black ballerina at ABT to perform the lead roles in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. Now Madison, too, aspires to performing these iconic roles.
“She [Copeland} opened the doors … [Now] there’s no reason to hesitate if this is what you want. You can go get it. You can strive for it because she has changed the way people look at ballet … the skin color doesn’t matter … it’s all about what comes from within and how you portray yourself on that stage… [She] has inspired me and reassured me that there is no reason for me to be scared that they may not want me for what I look like. All that matters is the person I am and the way that I dance.”
Brooks, 60, has come to the same conclusion. Now an associate professor and director of the dance program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, his professional life has spanned the past four decades.
Beginning his training in the 1980s at the Oklahoma Ballet and Oklahoma City University at an age that is considered to be very late for a dancer, Brooks refused to let this be a limitation. Instead, he used his late start to drive him as he pursued every opportunity he could uncover that would expand his knowledge in dance, cramming in as many classes and summer courses he could into those early years of training.
Summers have always been a highlight in a dancer’s training because of the plethora of intensive programs where young dancers have the opportunity to work with master teachers from all over. Brooks, who tried to fit in as many as two or three each summer, knew that one needed to audition in order to get financial assistance. Brooks remembers showing up one year to audition for the famous Jacob’s Pillow summer program.
“I walked up to the desk and said ‘I’m here to sign up for the audition,’ and the snarky young girl there — with the New York attitude — said ‘Well, which one?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘Well, there’s the ballet, the modern and the jazz [auditions].’ and I thought ‘Well, I have the capability to do all [of them] so I’ll hedge my bets.’ and I said, ‘I’ll do all three.’”
To his complete surprise, Brooks was accepted into all three programs on scholarships.
Jacob’s Pillow, which brought in two dance companies a week during its 14-week session, was a mecca for dancers, allowing Brooks to meet numerous artistic directors, company members and other fellow dance students. In fact, it was the Ohio Ballet that came to perform at the end of the season and offered Brooks his first professional contract. Consequently, he once again found himself as poster boy but this time, Jacob’s Pillow used his photo to illustrate his success story — scholarship to contract — in their advertising for the program.
Brooks, who was lithe, limber and had good legs and feet necessary for the classical lines of ballet, was cast in many roles, but there were times during his career that he encountered clear racism. While under contract with the now-defunct Charleston Ballet Theatre, he showed up for the casting call for the Cavalier in The Nutcracker.
And even though he was the highest-paid dancer in the company, he was asked to leave because they would never cast a black man as the Cavalier knowing that their audience would never accept it. Brooks suggested that he perform the role at the matinee school performances where more than 80 percent of the audience was African-American children, but the directors still wouldn’t budge, so he quit.
Brooks did return to Charleston, a year later, to perform the contemporary ballet L’Histoire du Soldat, a sensual biracial pas de deux. “So here it was. I am in the same city that racially discriminated against me because they did not want to put a Black man in a lead role and here I am — in the same Black body … and in a lead role and dancing with a white female,” Brooks said. “There was no public outcry. There wasn’t a hint of backlash. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was very well-received.”
This past summer, Madison was scheduled to return for her fourth summer as a National Training Scholar at the famous 890 Broadway studios at ABT. She knew she wanted to devote her life to dance during her second ABT summer when, during lunch break, she happened to see two company members rehearsing in a studio.
“I stood there, just watching them through the little window in the door, and I thought ‘This is what I need to do for the rest of my life … I can’t do anything else. This is what I need and it’s what I want.’”
Madison has as won a bevy of top awards at a wide range of competitions as well appearing on TV as the youngest finalist on NBC’s series World of Dance. Articulate, thoughtful and aware, Maddie will undoubtedly follow Copeland as a role model for dancers of color. She is cognizant of the pitfalls of social media, and together with her parents’ guidance and support, she is able to stay focused and dedicated to achieving her dream even during this difficult stay-at-home period.
Her whole family is helping. The living room furniture has been pushed back, carpets removed, and a Marley dance floor rolled out. Her father got the hammer and saw out and made a ballet barre so Maddie could continue her twice-a-day daily ballet classes on Zoom which she intersperses with even more online classes in other dance forms.
She has been doing virtual schooling for a few years now, so the transition to online dance classes by herself at home was easier in one way, but on a day-to-day basis, Maddie said “It’s definitely been harder for me — not to be motivated, but to have as much joyful emotion for it [dancing] … so, it’s just that it has been a little more sad, but I know that eventually, I will be able to get back out there, and that’s what is keeping me motivated and striving for it [my goal].”
For his part, Brooks has learned to navigate his career opportunities. He made calculated decisions about what communities he could not just survive but thrive in as a Black dancer. He looked for directors who were willing to to see him for who he was and cast him for his talent and not the color of his skin. Some years later, Brooks had the opportunity to dance the Cavalier in Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy for the Minnesota Dance Theatre in Minneapolis, the same town that sparked racial justice for George Floyd.
Brooks has danced for 65 companies performing works by 135 choreographers in an extensive range of different dance styles. He has toured throughout the USA, Europe, and Asia with Nikolais & Murray Louis, Bill Evans, Marcus Schulkind, Loyce Houlton, Laura Dean, Robin Becker, Deborah Carr and Anna Sokolow, among others.
He returned to school, earning a master’s in fine arts from the University of Washington in Seattle and in 1998, he came to Palm Beach County to teach at the Bak Middle School for the Arts. Six years later and after choreographing musicals and plays for FAU, he was hired as a visiting artist to develop the dance department at the university.
“I realized that I had started dancing at a university as an adult and I know what that is like … so I thought, ‘Let’s try it and see.”
Brooks’s passion for dance and learning is evident. In his current role as educator, he takes the role of mentoring students seriously. Drawing from his experiences, he works with them to help define “safe spaces,” knowing that this kind of environment is where one can grow, expand and believe in their futures. He also imparts to his dance students that it is their responsibility to be more aware of social injustices.
“This is definitely a topic that is on the radar right now because of what has just happened here because to the two pandemics—the racist pandemic and the COVID. People are really starting to look at what is going on around them.” Later he added, “The changing of cultural images needs to be redone. It can be done, it is being done, and we just need to get the word out.”
And Madison’s advice for other aspiring young dancers?
“Even though you do perform for other people, you do it for yourself, otherwise there is no reason to do it. Stay in tune with yourself. Focus on who you are and stay true to yourself and that’s not always easy on social media … you may think you need to change who you are to get the hype and love from people … but if that doesn’t make you happy, it’s going to make something you love, something you used to love.”
Madison has sage advice, as well, on the present state of society.
“Looking into the future… with everything that has happened in this matter of months with racial inequality and all this illness … it’s been a lot and I think it was America’s wakeup call. We really need to do something here. We can’t just hear about it…You actually need to make a move in order to see a change.”
“I really hope that in the next few years we can see a difference… I’d love to see a greener earth… [I hope] this world can really see what we could miss out on if we continue to live the way we do. I think we could make the changes and really make a brighter place.”