efore Misty Copeland became American Ballet Theatre's first African American principal dancer and the face of ballet's diversity movement, TaKiyah Wallace ('02) focused the spotlight on dancers of color through her camera lens.
Making a difference in the lives of young people has always been a calling for Wallace. For most of her professional career, that has meant applying her UNT bachelor's degree in psychology and minor in rehabilitation studies in the classroom. What she didn't count on was how her passion for helping others would bring her into the dance world.
For more than a decade, she has worked as a gifted and talented teacher in Dallas ISD. As the district's Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) program coordinator, Wallace launches makerspaces in Dallas schools and designs a curriculum to introduce elementary schoolers to robotics, coding, design thinking and more.
"Getting children to think about who they are designing for when they are making something is amazing," Wallace says. "It makes them more considerate as kids and later as adults."
In 2012, Wallace stumbled upon her own change-making project. While looking for a dance studio around downtown Dallas for her 3-year-old daughter to attend, she made a startling discovery -- there weren't many African American girls at any of the studios.
"My daughter is a Black girl with big, bushy hair. I didn't see any faces that looked like hers," Wallace says.
As a new mom wanting to snap quality photos of her daughter, Wallace took a photography class and shortly after started her own photography business. When she learned about the lack of representation in dance, she put her photo skills to work in a project capturing dancers of color ages 7-10 in Dallas, Austin and Houston, to shine a light on them.
"After the first week of taking photos in Dallas, I learned what I didn't know," Wallace says, "which was how expensive ballet is to the normal family, how oftentimes girls of color are the only person that looks like them in their ballet class, how tights and shoes are pink because they are supposed to match your lines -- but if you're a brown girl, they do not. There are a lot of body image issues for girls of color in ballet programs and often they quit. At one point, two moms came up to me in tears in Dallas and said, 'You have to keep doing this.'"
There was no turning back. Leaping eight years, and 13 cities, later, Wallace's project, Brown Girls Do Ballet, has documented hundreds of dancers and has given rise to a growing nonprofit of the same name that offers scholarships, studio grants, dance-supply donations and mentorship to aid aspiring dancers of color all over the U.S. Her efforts have been noted by The Huffington Post, the Washington Post and BuzzFeed, and earned international recognition in the HP-supported Girl Rising Creative Challenge. She's also advocated for a more inclusive environment in ballet with some of the top professional dance companies and dancewear brands.
With conversations of inequity sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, six of the major dancewear makers announced plans for a more inclusive line of pointe shoes, a goal Wallace has long lobbied for through Brown Girls Do Ballet.
"Being able to provide a level of security and comfort for these girls -- that's my high," Wallace says.