Ingrid Silva was eight years old when she started doing ballet. Like other little girls, she started out going to classes with a sibling—in her case, her brother—and worked her way up to professional training and eventually, achieved an accomplishment many only dream of: getting into a company.
But Ingrid isn't your typical ballerina.
The daughter of a domestic worker and a retired Air Force employee, she grew up in Rio de Janeiro''s Benfica neighborhood, a working-class area not far from the city's famed Maracanã Stadium. At around age 13, she started getting serious about ballet, quitting swimming and other sports to dedicate herself to dance.
Ingrid started out dancing in Mangueira at Dançando Para Não Dançar, a program based in a dozen of Rio's favelas that provides classical ballet training to kids and teens who could otherwise not afford dance classes. It's had a great track record in training dancers that go on to train at the city's esteemed Teatro Municipal school and later, to dance in companies abroad.
She was one of the success stories of the program, and also trained at the Teatro Municipal school and with Deborah Colker's company, as well as appearing in the movie Maré, Nossa História de Amor. She danced in college and then in 2007, she got into the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH)'s summer intensive, and went to New York to train. A year later at age 19, she went back to New York to join DTH's ensemble, and later went on to join the company.
Now 25, Ingrid is disarmingly self-assured and mature. She throws around words like balance, priorities, discipline, and focus talking about her path as a dancer. She told me about how hard it was coming to New York by herself. "I had to get by on my own. That's when I grew up and learned to appreciate what my parents had taught me," she said.
When she first arrived, she didn't speak English or know anyone. She first lived with roommates, and missed the community atmosphere she'd grown up with, as well as her family. Later, she lived with a friend of her grandmother's, an older Brazilian woman, where she felt more at home. Now, she lives in her own place with her new puppy, and peppers her Portuguese with occasional English words.
I asked Ingrid about role models. While she said she looked up to Brazilian ballerinas like Ana Botafogo and Cecília Kerche, she learned that she had to inspire herself. For her, finding a role model isn't just wanting to be like a dancer. "It's how to get there," she explained. Because of that, she said she's become her own role model. She's gotten this far by herself, she says, "as a black dancer from a [low-income] community in Rio without my parents having the financial means to get me there."
Race is a huge issue in the ballet world, and not just in Brazil. At the Teatro Municipal school, Ingrid was one of four black dancers in her class of 25. And when she was younger, she wanted to join the Teatro Municipal company. But she later realized that Rio's premiere ballet company doesn't have a single black female dancer, and only a handful of black male dancers. For black female dancers in Brazil, she said, you have to go abroad to have a shot at ballet.
In the United States, the situation isn't great, but there are opportunities like the DTH, along with a few black dancers appearing in some of the country's top companies. Ingrid explained that racism in ballet is a shame, because in reality, "it's for everyone."
Ingrid dancing at New York's Greene Space in 2013
Still, she insists that her success has nothing to do with her race or background. "I'm not here because I'm poor," she said. "I'm here because of my dancing." She recalls always being one of the best in her class growing up, and worked hard at her art with the hopes of being treated equally.
Ingrid would like to go back to Brazil someday, though she doesn't know how many dance opportunities she'd have there. Plus, she points out, ballet doesn't get much recognition there. For now, Ingrid wants to focus on her dance career and later on wants to study psychology and become a dance psychologist.
These days, Ingrid is on the road much of the time with the company. She travels so much she lost track of how many times she's traveled this year. She estimates the company has around 50 to 60 trips annually to perform around the United States and throughout the world. But she can feel an extra element of home at work. Out of 18 dancers in the company, three are from Brazil, including Ingrid.
Dance Theater of Harlem is performing at Lincoln Center in New York from April 23 to 27. Get tickets here. Ingrid will be dancing in Gloria, Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven, and Contested Space.