Unapologetic Body, Herstory*
By Francesca Harper*
“The growing edge is knowledge that pushes one to reconsider where they
are and where they have been; going to our place of challenge and working through
difficult moments; and allowing discomfort to propel growth and new insights.” (1)
I decided to create a work that would confront this growing edge entitled “Unapologetic
Body.” Unapologetic Body is a coming of age story. After losing both parents, I decided to
travel through memories and redefine myself. Apologizing and assimilating as a woman of
color in the ballet world had found its way into my habits. It was up to me to find my way back to love.
I have a distinct memory of taking African Dance as a child at the Ailey School and
feeling deeply connected to the movement, it lived in my bones. No other dance has
ever flowed as easily through my body, an unexpected discovery for a young New York
artist of color with a centered focus on ballet, a Euro-centric art form. How is it possible to
claim your identity in a predominantly white space as an artist of color without feeling the
resonance of this history? How is it possible to confront this pain without feeling its negative
My family tree includes Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a relationship fraught with
inequity and oppression. Is that information carried through my DNA? As I look back on the
historical relationship between Europe and Africa, between Ballet and African Dance, it
is fraught with pain, loss, and displacement. But if I look back closely over time, I start
to witness bridges and intersectionality outweighing the divisions. The work I have achieved as a Contemporary Ballet performer and creator makes me a part of that movement. From Louis XIV’s exclusive palace reserving ballet solely for royalty, to Balanchine and Lincoln Kirsten’s vision, a ballet company comprised of an equal number of African American dancers and Caucasian dancers, to Katherine Dunham founding Ballet Negre in 1931, a predominantly black ballet company, to Arthur Mitchell founding Dance Theater of Harlem during the civil rights movement, to the work I created with William Forsythe in The Frankfurt Ballet, inspired
by Hip Hop, all are examples of how human beings can shape progress through vision,
bonds, and community action.
Unapologetic Body is the story of an African American woman standing on the shoulders of
those who actively confronted the constraints of racism and sexism, a woman claiming
her own legacy. Although there is still a little ballerina of color living inside me, afraid
that her hair is still too kinky, her body is too muscular, and that she doesn’t belong in
this exclusive balletic world, those fears are slowly disappearing with each word I write,
with each class I teach and with each piece I choreograph. I belong to the new ballet
world, as a woman of color. Unapologetic Body reminds us how to bravely lean into love.
- December, 2020
(1) In 2017, I was awarded a fellowship with Urban Bush Women‘s Choreographic Center Initiative. The first question Jawole Willa Jo Zollar asked us was to define our “growing edge.”
Francesca Harper was appointed Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey II in September 2021.
During her career she has been an internationally acclaimed multi-faceted artist. She
joined and performed soloist roles for the Dance Theater of Harlem and as a Principal
Dancer at Ballet Frankfurt; She has choreographed works for Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater among many other companies, including her company, The Francesca
Harper Project established in 2005. She has appeared in and collaborated on numerous Broadway, TV and film productions including as a Ballet Consultant on the Oscar winning feature film, Black Swan. Harper has been a Professor at The Juilliard School, NYU, and Ailey / Fordham, and is Executive Producer with Sony Pictures on a new series in development.
Collaborators for Unapologetic Body include Grammy nominee songwriter and composer
Nona Hendryx, Bessie-award winning lighting designer Tuce Yasak, Filmmaker Derrick
Belcham, and Visual Artist Nick Cave.
Photos: Richard Termine
A new balletic landscape
• In the mid 1990s, a third of Forsythe’s European based company was composed of artists of color.
• In 2015, Misty Copeland becomes the first Principal
female artist of color with American Ballet Theatre.
• In 2019, with Wendy Whelan and Jon Stafford at the helm, New York City Ballet hires multiple artists of color.
A new female body:
• As Contemporary Ballet becomes more popular,
female bodies are finally hailed for being strong and
muscular, partnering men now and sometimes even
• Women shatter the image of the waif.
• Feminism is acknowledged through Contemporary Ballet.
Music for ballet:
• Inspired by hip hop, William Forsythe commissions
and collaborates with Thom Willems to create
scores featuring percussive electronic beats and African rhythms that influence the new voice of contemporary ballet.
• Kyle Abraham introduces the Lincoln Center / State
Theater audience to the music of Kanye West in 2018
with “The Runaway.”
*Unapologetic Body, Herstory by Francesca Harper, is featured in Centerpoint Now ©2020, World Council of Peoples for the United Nations, UN 75th anniversary special edition "Are we there yet?" co-produced with Streaming Museum.