You walk into a large room with high ceilings and walls made of massive mirrors. You are dressed in tights and a form-fitting leo, perhaps a pair of garbage bag shorts for the sake of menial comfort, and the floor has a slight spring beneath you. Every day that you walk into this place to hone your craft -- to dance and jump and bend and bound -- your teachers tell you how far from perfect you are, how wrong you and your body are. All of this gets wrapped in a skin of reflections on all four sides of the studio. More often than not, the sense of self that gets bounced back to you is a far less empowered, less complimentary image than you started off with.
There are few art forms, sports, or professions in general for that matter, that involve as much emotional and physical wear and tear as dance.
It's a side of the art that most audience members never seriously consider. But if you spend a significant amount of time around professional dancers, it's impossible not to be affected by what they put themselves through for their passion. And while many people on both sides of the barre would say that that's simply the nature of the beast, others are not content to accept that idea of a subjugated self-image being an occupational hazard of doing what they love.
Hattie Mae Williams is one such dancer.
After graduating from New World School of the Arts in Miami, her hometown, then earning a degree with honors in choreography from Fordham/Alvin Ailey in New York City, Williams went on to form her own dance collective that she called the Tattooed Ballerinas. Now, ten years after the group's inception, Williams has been awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation's Knight Arts Challenge in her hometown and is continuing to find ways to educate, liberate, and inspire dancers.
Williams, a Miami native who, like so many of our city's talented young artists, found her way to success in New York, was happily surprised to win the Knight Challenge grant.
"I think the art world in Miami is really taking off, but the concept of a dance installation is still a new thing in Miami, so I was thrilled that they were open to it," she noted.
Hattie Mae Williams is not a ballet dancer for the most part. Her training at New World and later Fordham/Ailey was in modern dance, but her choreography is geared towards the most expressive means of expression, looking to be categorized as neither classical nor contemporary, but rather as raw and real and graceful. If you're wondering why they're called the Tattooed Ballerinas if they're not, strictly speaking, ballerinas, the answer is juxtaposition. There are few archetypes more associated with daintiness and prim perfection than the ballerina, and there are few cultural pastimes that are less dainty and more overtly against the idea of a perfectly prim body than that of getting tattoos. Throw the two together and you conjure up a hell of an interesting group of dancers.
"I've always done things on my own, I've always produced things on my own," explained Williams, "and ideas that I've had are not always accepted by the dance community because we're such an obedient audience. We want to come and sit down, we want to watch the show, we don't want to be bothered -- it's just kind of the structure we've formed in the dance community, which works for a lot of [people]. But I was more interested in reaching people who weren't necessarily always in an art scene, people who were in the midst of their everyday life. So a lot of my projects formed with me literally just having an idea and being inspired by a certain space and not taking the time or the care to ask for permission to do it there." She laughs before continuing, "It was just something that had to be done when it had to be done."
Her recent success with the Knight Foundation takes her a bit further out of the guerilla world than the Tattooed Ballerinas have gone thus far. The grant awards Williams $8,000 and permission to have access to two of Miami's most recognizable and aesthetically fascinating locations: Miami Marine Stadium in Key Biscayne and the Venetian Pools in Coral Gables.
"I'm going to start off doing the Miami Marine Stadium project first," she began. "The Venetian Pools project isn't going to happen until 2015 because we're collaborating with the city of Coral Gables and the Venetian Pools, so a lot of other red tape has to be sorted through and we're going to wind up doing it for the 90th birthday of both the city and the Venetian Pools."
"This summer I'm going to be starting the Miami Marine project," Williams told New Times. "I'm going to audition local dancers and artists. My main objective of this is to show or at least give my impression of what used to happen there...what the stadium meant to the community. Also, I want to bring in the element of Hurricane Andrew and how it only caused minimal damage to the stadium, but was used as the reason to close it down. It'll also address how the stadium is viewed now because there's really a duality to the perception among the people of Miami. You find some who have fond memories of when it was open and some with more mixed emotions who think what it's become to date is horrible. Then you ask someone else and they'll say that its current state, with all the photo shoots and amazing graffiti, is great. It's really interesting to see the different ways the community and all the communities within the city see the stadium. It's basically going to be a piece set in three parts -- the past, the present, and a bit about the future, looking at the hungry developers with their eyes set on the stadium and the people who are working to save it."
"The Venetian Pool project is a whole different animal," she went on. "I'm hoping to get four different high schools involved in the project, both for the performance and simply to teach them about site-specific dance. Basically, it's going to be a celebration of the Pools' past and a celebration of the city. It's going to have a very 1920s/1930s feel, and they're going to drain the pool and allow us to [do] some stuff inside the pool and around the perimeter. It really is super exciting."
For Williams, the prospect of taking on these sizable, storied edifices of Miami's landscape isn't a particularly jarring or daunting one. In fact, she's thoroughly looking forward to the work that lies ahead of her, enthralled with the prospect of being part of what she and many others see as the possible beginning of a cultural boom in Miami, a period of growth and exploration and establishment of this city's artistic character.
To her, the only thing that's a bit unusual about this grant is the grant itself. For someone who has spent the better part of a decade being described as sort of a rogue artist, there's something a bit alien about being given a budget and permission to choreograph and put two projects into motion in these two very auspicious and conspicuous sites.
"I usually work on large scale projects, but it's fantastic that I'm actually supported and commissioned to some extent with this," Williams said, "because usually my style has been very much a guerilla style, which is very much on my own, and getting a bunch of dancers who are eager and willing to take that risk. Now, being able to go through the logistics and the planning of the whole thing with this kind of support is all kind of new to me, but I like it and I definitely appreciate it."
Williams hopes the opportunity she's been given by the Knight Foundation is only the beginning of her and the Tattooed Ballerinas establishing themselves in Miami, and for the future, she sees it as the beginning of a much broader expansion of the movement.
"I want to do a lot more in Miami," Williams exclaimed. "I'm trying to be very present, with the projects I have now, for instance, but there are a lot of other sites that I'd love to get my hands on in Miami...Ultimately, I'd love to be doing site-specific works around the world and throughout the country and have a small core group that's the Tattooed Ballerinas, and then bring people in from the community of the site who are interested in doing it."
There's something really fantastic about the way Hattie May Williams talks about her dance company. It's difficult to describe, but there's a palpable devotion to her group and her craft in her voice that's all at once intense and at ease, unrelenting and yet utterly cool. It gives you a strong sense that she isn't just talking about a movement, rather she's talking about a Movement, capital M. While the former discusses a bright, but far-off future, the latter turns the present into that future as they give guerilla master classes to the masses in the middle of Time Square.
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"Since 2003," Williams said, "I've been trying to build the momentum with what that means to be a tattooed ballerina, what it means to other people, what it originally meant for me. So I do want to get the movement going as far as people being on board with the idea that you might not be the traditional-looking type of person or dancer, but you have the technique, you have the ideas, you have the audacity to go and dance and do something. I want to try to form that to where it is a community, so that when we go to other states and other countries, people are drawn to it and where they can learn this technique of how to do things the right way."
"Originally," she concludes, "the Tattooed Ballerinas was a movement, and hopefully this recognition from the Knight Foundation will get the wheels going a little bit more."
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