MEET LAUREN ANDERSON: THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN PRINCIPAL FOR THE HOUSTON BALLET
As we come to a close on Black History month and enter Women’s History Month we want to celebrate women who have made history and have created some #BlackGirlMagic. Houston native, Lauren Anderson started dancing at the Houston Ballet Academy when she was seven. While Anderson was in elementary school she explored other creative outlets such as music. Unfortunately, her parents could not afford both music and dance lesson, prompting Anderson to choose between the two. She picked dance because she felt like she could “pick up a violin later.” Although she did not plan on becoming a ballerina, by following her passion and putting in hard work and being dedicated to her craft, Anderson became the first African American Principal dancer for the Houston Ballet.
The Source: For people who aren’t familiar with you, who is Lauren Anderson?
Lauren Anderson: I’m a product of HISD [Houston Independent School District] so I graduated from Lamar Sr. High. People also ask me why did I go to Lamar instead of HSPVA [Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts]. Well, its because my father was the assistant principal and he said he was fighting battles for kids over there when it came to his daughter he would have to kill somebody so it was best if I didn’t go. Actually, that was smart because there is a grade that you have to get at Christmas time that’s a huge project and it interferes with The Nutcracker. I was in Houston’s very first Nutcracker. If you want to be a ballerina in the Houston Ballet, you need to be seen as much as possible. I credit a lot of my dance career to my dad, my parents but, specifically my dad. He was always very supportive. He was smart about decision making. He would say, you need to get good grades because you are an athlete and you aren’t going to dance forever. I grantee you will not dance forever. So with all that said, I graduated from Lamar and in 1990 I became the first African American Principal Dancer at the Houston Ballet. Very few ballerinas anywhere. Then I retired at 41 and stopped dancing completely at 44 and now I work in Education and Community Engagement department at the Houston Ballet.
Let’s talk about when you became the first African-American Principal for the Houston Ballet because when you really think about, you’ve made history.
At that time I was just doing what I loved to do. I’ve been giving the gift of passion. Let’s be real, I knew when I was in the academy and that no one else looked like me. I got that. So no, I didn’t think of making history.
So you didn’t feel any pressure?
Not until I got in the company.
Why is it important for black girls to see someone who looks like them?
It’s important to me because you don’t know until you know. When I was nine years old, I saw Dance Theatre of Harlem for the very first time. I’ll never forget seeing that first black ballerina run across the stage. My mom said I literally moved to the edge of my seat. Then I saw another one, and another one, and I turned to my mom and said, mom, there is a whole stage full of them. Then I saw someone do Firebird, and I was like mom, I want to be here. So you don’t know until you know. Representation is why I thought I could be a ballerina.
What are your thoughts on diversity and how it has played a role in the Houston Ballet?
I was blessed with an organization that was very supportive of my situation. This is a European Art form which means it’s really really white and everything is expected to look a certain way. Especially back in the ’70s. Ben Stevenson was really clear in 1983 when I was hired. He said you are going to have to look better than everybody else. Houston needs to get used to you. Yes, they have seen you in the Nutcracker but that’s different. You are about to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Houston Ballet caught the heat but I didn’t realize that until the 90s. The Houston Ballet has been at the forefront of hiring minorities. Now with diversity, equity, and inclusion that’s been put out, especially in dance companies, I’m proud to say that the Houston Ballet is proud to say, we’ve been hiring African-Americans since 1976.
Have you ever thought about doing any other type of dancing like choreography or back up dancing for examples?
Everybody wanted to be a backup dancer. I had the towel on my head and the microphone. What I thought is that I would end up on Broadway. Well, I can sing but I can’t sang and you know how it is. I could hold a tune but that means you need to be in the back in the chorus. I’ve always wanted to stand in Carnegie Hall in a gorgeous gown with a blue light singing jazz standards. I’ve always wanted to do that. But another type of dance, no. I think it’s because I’ve trained so hard at something that is so hard that it’s so specific. I want to be able to move in any type of way. But, I’ve always wanted to be a classical ballerina.
In glad you mentioned training, can we talk about the physical routine you use to keep you in shape?
It’s funny. I started late. A lot of people start training at three, four, or, five at creative movement. You don’t put a three-year-old in the army. Ballet and the army are alike because you are learning repetition. That’s why it’s so boring to some people. You want to be perfect but you are never perfect. It’s good but not perfect. It can always be better. It could always be more of something. You start slow like piano lessons learning your foot positions. Then you get the hang of it and it four years you have to learn it all over again in toe shoes. The company is always taking a class to get better because if you don’t use it, you will lose it. It’s like if you don’t go to the gym for a week, that first day back in the gym is a mofo. It’s hard. So imagine that with perfecting footwork positions and arm positions. So imagine that with perfecting footwork and arm positions.
I’ve watched clips of Beyonce’s choreographer Ashley talk about their training process too. It sounds like a lot of physical work
If you were one of Beyonce’s back up dancers or Janet Jackson’s back up dancers, you are working six hours and its choreography and it’s a style, and you can take a class. There is an actual technique to doing eight counts. There is a technique to all of that. People think it’s all just fun but it’s not a night dancing in the club, it’s work.
Let’s shift gifts for a little bit, your shoes from your last performance in The 2006 Nut Cracker were put on display in 2016 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American Culture in DC. What was that moment like for you?
You say it and I get chills. It was overwhelming. To say that I am honored would not do it justice. The coolest thing was Lawrence, my son because for him to go his history teacher told him he needed to take pictures with my shoes. So, when we went, we got a chance to go in before, because I didn’t know if we were going to be able to take pictures. They let us in and Usher was supposed to come in after us so Lawrence was like, I want to wait for Usher. I said dude, we are going in here for you. Once we got in we went to the sports floor. The museum is amazing. It will make you laugh, cry, and feel the ancestors. For my son to see my shoes and says that’s my mama. My grandkids can come see their great grandmother. Just the thought of my great-great grandchildren can come to see me in a place for us is incredible. So how do I feel, I feel amazed, overwhelmed, I can’t believe it.
A lot of people would consider this a huge goal, can you talk about the difference between achieving goals and living in your purpose?
That wasn’t a goal. That was something that happened to me. Just like becoming the first African-American Principal. My goal was to get in the Houston Ballet. My dream was to be like a soloist. I had no idea that I would become a principal and I had no idea that I would become a principal and I had no idea that it would have an impact. On my tombstone, I want it to say She Had An Impact. I work with kids, I get to do that now. My career is amazing and I’m really grateful for it and it allows me to do what I do now. I get to work with children who people would have more an opportunity to fail than the opportunity to succeed. I get to make them know their worth and that’s huge.
In 2017 you received the Texas Medal of Arts Awards in dance how was that?
That was pretty amazing too. One of the people I’ve always looked up to and a good friend of mine Debbie Allen was the first recipient of that award in dance from the Texas Cultural Trust. To get it from your state is pretty amazing. But guess what, this year I get to host it.
If you could describe dance in three words, what would they be and why?
Joy because it feels good. I love it. I love to dance and movement. It’s like the breath of life. Freedom because once you do it and its right and with the music. It’s like becoming music. If you can feel like what it is to become music that’s what it is. Pleasure because the way you learn to dance is by being just torn down. Then you get built back up again. Then you beat it back down and build it back up. It’s not healthy psychologically because you are very critical but for some reason. When I’m dancing I’m okay and everything about me is okay.
Lastly, I hear you have a show called #LATastings where you give dessert reviews.
I love me some sweets. I grew up with great cooks, my mother is a great cook and my stepmother is a great cook. I love food and I love dessert. I have a serious sweet tooth.