Ingrid Silva Is Working to Make the Ballet World More Inclusive
“Black dancers don’t get a lot of opportunity to succeed because people don’t believe we exist in this art form,” says the Brazillian-born ballerina. But she’s determined to change that.
By Gabi Thorne
I first heard ballet dancer Ingrid Silva speak at the 2018 Afro-Latino Festival. I’ve never paid much attention to the ballet world, but I was engrossed as she recalled growing up in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, discovering ballet, and eventually becoming a full-time dancer at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. When she and I chatted on a random Wednesday morning in the present day, I was excited to hear her Brazilian accent again as she chronicled her life to me. In the past four years since I first came across her, Silva has been quite busy.
A key moment came in 2019 when she received her first pair of custom-colored pointe shoes. It was a milestone for Silva, who spent 11 years painting her own shoes with Black Opal’s True Color Pore Perfecting Liquid Foundation in Ebony Brown to make them match her dark brown skin. This technique, known as “pancaking,” is something many Black ballet dancers are forced to do due to the lack of pointe shoes available in colors other than baby pink. “[Painting my shoes] was therapeutic at first. I was like, ‘Oh, this is so exciting,'” she shares. “And then I was over it. Why didn’t [brands] just create pointe shoes that are my skin color?”
Pointe shoes’ lack of inclusivity is just one of the many ways the ballet industry ignores the existence of Black dancers. They also often have to dye their standard-issue tights — which are usually white or baby pink — to make them blend with their deeper skin tones. The limited options for pointe shoes and tights are just a reminder that the larger ballet world is still predominantly white.
In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first Black principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre in the company’s 75-year history and the first Black ballerina to perform in Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House within the span of two weeks. The fact she made history twice for being a Black ballerina in the mid-2010s only serves as a glaring reminder of how exclusive the ballet world is. Silva tells me that it’s still not uncommon to see dance companies with just one or two dancers of color in a sea of 40 or more dancers.
So you could only imagine how it felt for Silva to enter that world with dark skin, coily hair, and a slim body that still wasn’t small enough for the ballet world. “I believe that they weren’t ready for me,” she says. “Black dancers don’t get a lot of opportunity to succeed because [people] don’t believe we exist in this art form.”
Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company Silva has been with for over a decade, challenges that notion, creating a space for dancers of colors, especially Black dancers, to learn and feel seen. “Dance Theatre of Harlem highlights dancers of color and what the stage should look like,” she shares. “I think that’s really important because every young kid who comes to watch us, they see themselves. And that’s the change right there. It’s what made me who I am,” she says.
Being a member of the company is the reason a pair of Silva’s hand-dyed pointe shoes were featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture‘s Taking the Stage exhibition in 2020. Silva recalls that her shoes were included in a section about the history of the Harlem dance company and described it as “one of the most memorable moments of my life.” Just two months after that, she starred on the November 2020 cover of Vogue Brasil while pregnant and completely nude except for the brown pointe shoes on her feet.
Long before she was on magazine covers or partnering with brands such as Dior, she was just a little girl learning how to plié and sauté at a local dance school in Rio de Janeiro. She first stepped into the studio at the age of eight, not yet realizing that the barre, the dance floor, and pointe shoes would become her home. At 13, she earned a spot at one of the top ballet schools in Brazil, Escola de Dança Maria Olenewa.
Five years later, Arthur Mitchell, the late founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, saw a video of her dancing and invited her to attend the company’s Summer Intensive program — and then she kept getting invited back. She attended another training program before joining the company’s Dancing Through Barriers Ensemble in 2008 and then finally became a professional dancer for the company in 2013.
Ballet was the only thing familiar to the Brazilian-bred dancer when she moved from sunny Rio to the then-cold, snow-covered New York City streets in 2008 — her first-international trip — without knowing a lick of English. “I learned English by listening to music, watching movies, and braving myself to talk to people, even if it was wrong,” she shares.
Her career as a ballerina in many ways speaks for itself, but she also manages to seek out plenty of non-ballet pursuits. “It’s really important to just also grow outside of my bubble. I want to be seen as more than just a dancer,” she says. In my not-so-humble opinion, Silva is the very definition of a Renaissance woman.
That hunger to do more is how she ended up founding PodHer in 2017; in the past five years, the organization has grown to connect women to resources and a global community through panels, job opportunities, and a blog. “We wanted to give women a space to share their voice, find opportunities, and connect with the community. And we were able to do that,” she says. She also shares that the growth is continuing, which includes an upcoming name change for the organization.
EmpowerHer is just one of the ways she has figured out how to make a change in her communities. The Blacks in Ballet platform is another. It’s an Instagram page that functions like a directory of dancers for casting agents and regular dance fans alike. Alongside fellow Brazilian ballet dancer Fábio Mariano, Silva launched it in 2020 as a way to highlight the many Black ballet dancers around the world.
Around the same time, she wrote a book titled A Sapatilha Que Mudou Meu Mundo (a bestseller in Brazil) that recounts her life story up until 2020. For now, it’s only available in Portuguese, but she’s working on getting an English-language version published in the States.
In the midst of cultivating a new Instagram community and writing a book, Silva also became pregnant unexpectedly. Though her pregnancy brought her joy, it also brought her anxiety over the future of her career. “I work with my body, and I did not know what was going to happen. So I was extremely worried about [my career]. ‘Am I going to be able to come back to dance?'” she questioned. It adds an additional layer of pressure and anxiety to “snapback” culture, the idea that women need to head to the gym immediately after giving birth to recover their pre-baby body. It was just another way she was expected to change her body to fit into the ballerina mold.
he was forced to find the balance between training for her job and not trying to force her body into something it no longer was. During her pregnancy, she took classes with Bethania Gomes, a fellow Black Brazilian and former principal dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem, who developed a dancing technique for mothers.
She returned to work five months after giving birth. Since Silva’s family doesn’t live in New York, her now two-year-old daughter Laura has been at her mom’s side in the studio since she was three months old; her fellow dancers even joke that she’s the company’s “emotional support baby.” In the meantime, she continued to work with Gomes while also diving into CrossFit, bike riding, and yoga — the latter of which has been great for her mental health. “I’m not pushing for the perfect shape or body because I’m never going to be the same as I was. It’s important for me to learn how to work with the body that I have now and embrace that this body is powerful and did so much and will do so much, but I need to take care of it and know and treat it as my temple,” she shares.
Considering everything Silva does daily, it’s hard to believe she and I have the same 24 hours in a day — frankly, I’m still not entirely convinced we do. How does she manage to be a mom, author, owner of two organizations, and a full-time dancer? “Girl, I don’t know. [I take it] one day at a time, mostly.”