Ballet has historically been an art form performed by mostly white dancers, but that is beginning to change. Now little girls and boys have posters of Misty Copeland or Desmond Richardson on their walls, and 10-year-old Aanaiyah Jones, a student at Portland’s Classical Ballet Academy, is joining that legacy. She will dance the role of Clara in The Children’s Nutcracker this year, the first African American student to do so in her company. 

Aanaiyah was introduced to ballet through Portland Parks and Recreation, where she studied for two years with Sandy Shaner. Ms. Shaner knew from day one that Aanaiyah has what it takes—both talent and discipline—to make a career in ballet, and considers it a privilege to have been her first dance instructor. 

As Aanaiyah aged out of the PP&R program, her family began to research ballet schools. They were drawn to Classical Ballet Academy’s inclusion statement, which promises to promote equity for over sixteen identity categories, including race. Aanaiyah now dances four days a week at Classical Ballet Academy, and volunteers in classes for younger dancers on a fifth day.  

Classical Ballet Academy’s director, Sarah Rigles, is effusive in her praise of the young dancer. Not only is Aanaiyah gifted with natural athleticism (“her feet fly off the ground”), she has what is so essential to any successful dancer: an incredible work ethic. When she joined Classical Ballet Academy, her focus, patience and presence were at a level far beyond her years. While other new students squirmed or were distracted, Aanaiyah stood quietly in a beautiful first position, exceptionally turned out, content to simply stand. And that contentment is key to what makes Aanaiyah such a delight to audience members. “She radiates sheer joy when she dances,” says Rigles. 

Ballet classes can feel like a rite of passage for many preschoolers, the draw of music and movement and an audience of adoring family and friends cheering them on. And as the stage becomes more inclusive and diverse, there are even more reasons to give that standing ovation. 

Aanaiyah will be performing the role of Clara in Classical Ballet Academy’s production of The Children’s Nutcracker on Friday, December 20th at 5:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased through their website at www.classicalballet.net. This performance is open to the public but is primarily recommended for friends and family of the young dancers in the show. When the dancers get a bit older (next year for Aanaiyah), they are asked to audition for the Pre-Professional performances of The Nutcracker recommended for all audience members.

Meg Asby is a mom of two in SW Portland and loves nothing better than a cartful of books from Central Library. Check out what her family is reading at Booked.

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