Sydney Magruder, 25 - freelance professional ballerina
Ballet is an art form revered by all, but attempted by few because of its complexity, gruelling body standards and institutionalized barriers to entry. Despite being told she was “built more like a gymnast,” professional ballerina, Sydney Magruder refused to let that determine the course of her career, or her dancing style. “Decide who really has a say in what goes on in your life,” says Magruder. “You, or these people who went out of their way to make you feel poorly? Spoiler alert - it's you.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
It was almost by default. Once you get to a certain level in ballet, there's an automatic assumption that you want to become a professional. Ballet sucks you in so intrinsically that it's hard to get yourself out. I love what I do, but I don't think I've had a greatest achievement yet. I'm waiting for it, but I know it's coming.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
I am short and muscular, built more like a gymnast than a ballerina, and have had multiple teachers tell me over the years that maybe I should pursue modern dance instead of ballet. So while I may have been told I was too short and too built to be a ballerina, I'm on the way to proving them all wrong.
"In my last year of school, my modern dance teacher told me to my face, and in so many words, that I’d never be a ballerina. This was said with an acidic certainty that I’ve not forgotten all these years later. I went home and cried for hours, so convinced that he was correct that I vowed I’d never dance again."
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
Other people and their negative judgments. There's a predominant stereotype that Black girls cannot adapt their bodies to classical ballet technique, so I’ve been completely underestimated throughout my career. I never needed to adapt - I was born with near-perfect feet, generous flexibility, a predisposition for the athletic stamina required to dance full length ballets, and a knack for the physical poise and epaulement upon which classical ballet technique is founded. In my last year of school, my modern dance teacher told me to my face, and in so many words, that I'd never be a ballerina. This was said with an acidic certainty that I've not forgotten all these years later. I went home and cried for hours, so convinced that he was correct that I vowed I'd never dance again. I fell asleep crying that night. The next day I woke up, and I went to ballet class. I refused to let the ugliness of one person will not tear down my lifetime of work.
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I accepted my first ballet contract 3 years after that teacher told me I would never achieve such a thing. Then, I started speaking out about what it's like to be Black, have mental illness, and have Asperger's syndrome in the ballet world. Other dancers came out of the woodwork saying that they'd struggled too, and that no one had been there to stick up for them before. I became that person. I #SWAAYthenarrative in favor of those who have never had a voice, recognition, or someone to relate to in the very narrow world of classical ballet.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
Decide who really has a say in what goes on in your life - you, or these people who went out of their way to make you feel poorly. Spoiler alert - it's you.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.