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Young ballerina from Anderson is ambassador for 'Brown Girls Do Ballet'

The organization promotes diversity in the arts.

ANDERSON, Ind. — A young ballerina in Anderson is becoming an inspiration for girls all across the country.

Alaya Walker has been selected as an ambassador for Brown Girls Do Ballet, a organization that promotes diversity in the arts.

It's a program of positivity that empowers dancers of color and makes sure classical ballet is welcoming to all girls who want to take the stage.

Almost every day after school, Alaya Walker is in studio, perfecting her technique at Anderson Young Ballet Theatre. At just 12 years old, she performs with the skill and grace of a much more seasoned dancer.

Classical ballet is her passion.

"She lit up immediately and we knew that this is what she wanted to do," said Alaya's mom, Shelia Fakhreddine.

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"So much," Alaya said giggling. "I'll like catch myself at school, like doing dances in the hallways and I'll catch myself, like, dancing at home and my mom will have to tell me to go to bed at night."

Credit: WTHR/Jennie Runevitch

"There's just an inner light in that child," said Jennifer Thiemet, Alaya's dance teacher and AYBT's artistic director. "There always has been since she was small, and you see it the minute you start to talk to her and you see it the minute she starts to dance."

But what Alaya saw when she first started dancing at a different studio was very few other ballerinas of color to emulate and encourage.

"Ballet especially has been known for not having diversity," Thiemet said.

"When I first came here, there was one other brown girl. In my class, there weren't a lot of other girls that looked like me," Alaya said. "So I was kind of shy and stayed to myself."

But as her studio got more diverse, Alaya found mentors, gained confidence in class and blossomed on stage. Just this Christmas, she was cast as the lead in the AYBT's "The Nutcracker."

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"It's very easy to go into something when you have everyone else that looks like you," Alaya's mom said. "But when you're walking into something and there's others that don't look you or resemble you? You feel like you're the odd one out and it's OK to be different. It's OK to not be like everybody else and she needed to know that she could be a dancer."

TaKiyah Wallace experienced the same thing a decade ago when her daughter started dancing in Texas.

Credit: Shelia Fakhreddine

"I would go to the local dance websites and I didn't see very many kids that looked like her on those websites," Wallace said. "Seeing someone who looks like you, it is so important."

It's why Wallace founded Brown Girls Do Ballet. 

At first, it was a photography project, sharing positive images on Instagram. When that went viral, Wallace decided to do more, promoting diversity in dance with mentorships and scholarships, advocating for things like variable skin tones in tights and pointe shoes, so brown ballerinas' lines are lengthened, just like everyone else.

"And it's really nice to have that sisterhood of other girls that are going through the same thing that you can talk to things about, like, 'Oh my God, how did you get your braids into that ballet bun, because I'm struggling with that?'" Wallace said.

Credit: Sheila Fakhreddine

At its core, Brown Girls Do Ballet connects ballerinas of color nationwide and encourages them to keep dancing.

"Every weekend, I'm traveling for the project and I'm coming into contact with another parent that's like 'thank you for doing this. You have no idea how much this has helped her self-esteem and motivated her to keep going,'" Wallace said.

Alaya Walker is now part of that mission. While scrolling social media with her mom several months ago, they discovered the Brown Girls Do Ballet and its youth ambassador program.

"My mom, she saw pictures of brown girls in different poses and I'm like, 'That's really cool.' We saw the ambassadors and my mom was, like, 'You should try this, you should try this, and I was like, 'I don't know, I might not get it!'" said Wallace.

Out of thousands of applicants, she did get it. She's one of 33 girls selected as a 2022 ambassador, not only for her talent as a dancer but also her leadership qualities in school and the studio.

"She's always been a beautiful dancer. She's always been a beautiful performer. She's always been a very hard worker. But that screening process? They're very choosy," Thiemet said. "They want great mentors and you have to be choosy."

"I imagine you think she's going to be a great mentor," 13News asked her.

"She already is. She already is," Thiemet said.

Over the next year, Alaya will mentor young ballerinas, be part of social media campaigns, help with costume collections and volunteer work and serve as a role model. She's already had a photo shoot for a Black History Month video and said she can't wait for in-person mentoring.

"I think being an inspiration to younger girls is super cool. I've always wanted to do that," Alaya said.

This young dancer is raising the "barre" for ballerinas nationwide.

"She had no confidence when she started dance and I've watched it grow," Fakhreddine said. "I'm very much looking forward to watching her be a leader and a mentor to other girls, other brown ballerinas."

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