This Ballerina Is Smashing Stereotypes of an Age-Old Industry

Written by Chelsea Clarke  |  Photo courtesy of Lee Gumbs

Ebony Williams has movement mastered. From the meticulous precision of contemporary ballet to the swagger and stamina required to dance behind some of the world’s most notable superstars, she’s developed a signature style that’s sought out nation wide. Named in Pointe Magazine’s “25 Dancers to Watch” and performing choreography from renowned artists, Ebony is proving that the stereotypical image of the lithe and fragile dancer is a thing of the past.

FIRST STEPS

A neighbor was taking dance classes at a local studio, and she’d teach me what she learned from her ballet, tap, and jazz classes,” remembers Ebony from her childhood. Later, her mother enrolled her at the same studio in Boston, MA to nurture her affinity for dancing around the house. She was quickly invited to participate in a full-scholarship dance program that would allow her to earn school credits while training.

Ebony received crucial technical guidance at this, and other professional institutions, that honed the discipline for a career in dance, and the prestigious Boston Conservatory took notice. Learning from world class teachers rewarded Ebony with an honor that many dancers consider the ultimate career goal: a work contract. Signing with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, she became the first black woman to join the company, and now had the opportunity to showcase her work to a broad audience that was accustomed to seeing a more stereotypical type of dancer.

Professional dance contracts don’t guarantee long-term employment, but Ebony secured her place with Cedar Lake for a decade before the company unexpectedly shut its doors. Of this time, Ebony recalls feeling devastated, but it gave her the push she needed to expand her repertoire. As she told Dance Magazine, “My goal was to try everything—and to be okay with not being perfect.”

“My role as a black ballerina is to represent all that’s
not expected when you see a ballet dancer.”

STAGE TO SCREEN

While many professional dancers choose just one style of dance to work in, Ebony is a commander of variety. “Versatility, for me as a dancer, makes me feel whole.
I didn’t realize how important it was to my career until later on, but I try to inspire the younger generation to learn everything they can—the more information you have, the more you can offer,” she advises.

Hip hop and commercial dance classes in her freelancing schedule keep her up to date on what prospective clients might expect, and her personal drive to stay in athletic condition can sometimes mean freestyle and improvisational movements in the studio, or even pliés in her kitchen.

Ebony’s adaptability has led to major accomplishments offstage with appearances on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, HBO’s Vinyl, and Netflix’s The Get Down (and not to name drop or anything, but she’s danced alongside Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna). Most recognizably though, Ebony appeared as one of Beyonce’s leotard-and-high-heeled backup dancers in her iconic “Single Ladies” music video, later receiving the opportunity to tour and perform with Queen B herself. During a hectic touring schedule, Ebony commits to solo rehearsals in every city, maintains her stamina with cardio sessions, lengthens her muscles with stretching, Pilates, and massages, then it’s time for a quick warm-up before hitting the stage. She fuels with lean proteins, lots of fruit, and reveals she’s someone who craves hearty meals. Ebony’s foray into commercial dance provides a much-needed break from the strict demands of classical technique, and adds more depth to the classical pieces she performs when she returns to the ballet stage.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

Ebony recognizes her impact as a black woman in an industry where race plays a factor, particularly in the ballet world. “My role as a black ballerina,” begins Ebony, “is to represent all that’s not expected when you see a ballet dancer. Dark, shapely, overly muscular; a funky mover who rocks an afro.”

Asserting herself as a forcible role model, Ebony leads youth workshops and mentorships nationwide, covering everything from improving skills to handling audition critiques, with aspirations to leave an enriched legacy in the dance community—one that impacts the acceptance of diverse skin and bodies. Along with other professionals that are influencing how race is viewed in dance, she’s finally beginning to see some steps in the right direction; although, she knows there’s still work to be done. “We have great influencers paving the way who are willing to listen,” she says. “As a darker-skinned black girl, it’s important for me to stay out of the shadows and own that my black is beautiful. If I believe it, hopefully it’ll allow someone else to eventually step into the light, too.”

GET A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

subscription options

Send this to a friend