Dance

Up Close With Houston Ballet’s Lauren Anderson

Houston Ballet’s Lauren Anderson may have retired nearly ten years ago, but she’s still staying busy at the Ben Stevenson Academy. As the 2015-2016 ballet season got underway, the history-making ballerina reflected on her experiences of living and dancing in Houston.

  If there’s one thing Lauren Anderson does as naturally as dancing, it’s teaching.

In a studio inside Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance, she’s leading 25 elementary students – 24 girls and one boy — in their very first ballet class. They’re lined up neatly in five rows of five, facing the mirrored wall. Most are still in their school uniforms and dancing in their socks.

As the pianist plays, Anderson counts along and teaches them first and sixth positions and how to plié.

After more than 20 years of dancing with Houston Ballet, the Houston native retired from performing in 2006. Now, she manages the company’s education and community outreach programs.

She’s also credited with breaking the racial barrier in the dance world.

Growing up in Houston, Anderson remembers attending a performance of the Dance Theatre of Harlem at Jones Hall with her mom.

“I’ll never forget,” Anderson says. “One ballerina ran across, she was brown. Another ballerina ran across, she was brown. And the next thing you, know, the whole stage was full of them and I said, ‘Mom! They’re all black!’ And that’s the first time I really noticed that there weren’t very many African-American ballerinas.”

Anderson also has her own opinions regarding the media’s role in matters concerning racial barriers.

“I’ve noticed – and it’s not just with dance, it’s not just with me, it’s not just with Misty – but it seems like there can only be one doing this at a time,” she says. “And actually, there have been quite a few dancers of color that have done principal roles,” she says.

She attributes Houston Ballet as being the trailblazer in 1990 when they named her principal dancer. It was the first time an African-American woman had ever held that role in a major ballet company. Anderson saw Misty Copeland go through a similar experience as her own when she was named American Ballet Theatre’s first African-American principal over the summer. But when it happened for Anderson in 1990, she didn’t realize how historic it was at the time.

“Since I’ve retired, it’s been brought to my attention what a big deal it was that I became a principal dancer,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, why can’t it just be that I’m just a dancer?’ Then it dawned on me that it’s been since 1990 in a major ballet company since there’s been a black chic that’s a principal dancer. That, to me, is kind of a big deal now.”

Anderson had her pick of the companies with whom to dance, but she chose to stay with Houston Ballet for over 25 years.

“The Houston audience is amazing. (They’re) very loyal,” she says. If there was ever any question of wanderlust, she satisfied it by being able to dance as a guest artist elsewhere. She also discovered early on that she had some pretty solid teaching abilities. “I’ve taught in other schools and I’ve realized the gem that we have here in Houston – how really good the school is, what a good basic technical foundation you get here,” she says.

As the education and community engagement program manager at the Ben Stevenson Academy, one of her favorite programs is their Studio Series. It gives school kids the chance to see the academy’s upper-level dancers perform. Another program dear to her is Chance to Dance.  They give scholarships to the ballet students who show promise.

Anderson hopes that one day, she’ll get to see one of those children go on to join the company.

“Because art is not a privilege, it’s a right,” she says. “I think every kid should not just be exposed to it, but get to experience it. Put it on them. I just want to put it on them.”

This story originally aired and was posted online on September 24, 2015. 

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