Frances McElroy

Documentary Filmmaker and NEA Grantee
Headshot of a woman.

Photos Courtesy of Shirley Road Productions

Music Excerpts:

“Helio Theme composed and performed by Peter Rudenko. Obtained through the Free Music Archive.

<Delores Brown: I’m very torn with my advice to anybody of color who wants to be in the ballet. We are way behind in just our whole attitude. Ballet and people of color — we are just in the dark ages. I still can’t fathom why the major companies are having that as a problem.>


Jo Reed: That’s dancer and teacher Delores Brown in an excerpt from the documentary Black Ballerina, which was directed by Frances McElroy, and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. In her current project, Black Ballerina, director Frances McElroy has given the struggles of classical dancers of color a history that brings itself into the present. Look at any ballet company, you will see very few women of color. There are various reasons for this, but at its heart is a lack of opportunity informed, and this begins the cycle. If a little black girl has never seen a black ballerina, what are the chances that she’ll dream of becoming one? And if somehow she makes ballet her dream, and has talent and works hard, in a business designed to break hearts on the best of days, what additional odds will she face if she tries become a professional ballet dancer? These are issues Frances McElroy grapples with in her documentary, Black Ballerina, which received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. We hear the stories of different generations of dancers and discover what has changed, what’s changing, and what remains constant. McElroy is the founder and executive director of Shirley Road Productions, and she’s produced and directed a wide range of award-winning documentaries for public television. But her twin passions, justice and art, are threads that weave through her work and found a natural culmination in Black Ballerina.

Frances McElroy: I’ve always loved ballet, and I’m always interested in social justice issues, and diversity in ballet was a timely subject. I went and spoke with a woman here in Philadelphia, Joan Myers Brown, who is Founder of PHILADANCO!, a modern dance company.

Jo Reed: Oh, she’s a National Medal of Arts recipient. I did a podcast with her. She is remarkable.

Frances McElroy: She's incredible. We had a lovely chat, and she told me her personal story — that as a child, I guess it would have been in the late '30s, early '40s, Joan really wanted to be a ballerina. And she tells this story about how she walked up and down Chestnut Street, our main shopping street here in Philadelphia, looking to be admitted to one of the ballet schools, and at the time, young girls of color were not allowed to go to ballet schools. I mean, they just weren't accepted. You know, it was an all-white thing. And so she was never able to fulfill her dream. But she kept at it. She fed it in other ways. And she decided to start a ballet school first for youngsters largely in her area — her neighborhood. And then she eventually founded the company a year later, I believe it was '69 she founded PHILADANCO! And it's going strong. I mean, it's difficult with any company finding funding and all of that, but she has been a valiant supporter of this whole move towards more diversity in ballet. She uses every opportunity she can get to talk about it.

<Joan Myers Brown: Well, you know I started my dance school in 1960 because I thought, “Well maybe I could give someone else the opportunity I didn’t get. I started bringing in modern dance teachers so that the kids would not only know ballet, but they would know all dance because I knew that they would have to be able to do it all.>

Frances McElroy: So that sort of gave me the impetus. And at first, I thought, "Well, maybe I'll make a documentary about Joan." But then it seemed to be such a bigger subject, and she mentioned a lot of people she knew who had gone through similar experiences. And I thought, "Well, this is a broader topic than just Joan." So that was really how it got started, and why I chose it.

Jo Reed: In Black Ballerina, you interview different generations of artists. You interview former dancers who talk about the obstacles they faced, and the trails that they’ve blazed. And then the challenges that young current dancers are facing today. Just speaking practically, that is a lot of material. How do you structure it so that we get a coherent stories? What are your strategies for that?

Frances McElroy: Well, for me, it's very difficult. It's one of the more difficult aspects. It's easy to identify the people through research and through word of mouth. And then you talk to them, you meet them, and then you have long interviews with them, and you feel this bonding with these remarkable individuals, but that's sort of the easy part. The hard part is putting it all together and finding a way that is interesting to the viewer — that leads you from A to B to C, that sort of unfolds. It's truly the most difficult part of the process for me, and you really wrestle with it. It's also, though, where the editor that you work with is able to make a tremendous contribution, and in collaboration — I mean, I find my editors are real collaborators. And I give them all the credit in the world for the wonderful job. And certainly about Black Ballerina's case, our editor is Meg Sarachan, and I think she's done a tremendous job.

Jo Reed: I can imagine it’s really important to trust an editor. Because I’m sure there are moments when she wants to cuts something that you absolutely love, but cutting it will make that film get a little tighter and move a little quicker.

Frances McElroy: Happens all the time.

Jo Reed: But it’s still a good moment.

Frances McElroy: You know, everybody wants to keep in their little children, their favorite part, their favorite bite, their favorite person.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I call it "my puppy."

Frances McElroy: Yeah, your puppies, right, or your children, or whatever. But yes, it's heartbreaking, and it happens all the time. But oftentimes we are constrained by time limits, and we have no choice. I mean, some people just go and make something and don't intend to have it on public television, for example, just go for the length that they want to go for. I think oftentimes, some pieces can be too long. Sometimes it's better just to cut back and leave the viewer wanting more. And then you can — you have the opportunity to use the excess material — you could post it on your website, or something like that. So today's technology allows for that. And so it's not that all this material's just lost forever.

Jo Reed: And what about sitting down and talking with the dancers? Were they very willing to be as open as they were?

Frances McElroy: Yes. One thing that struck me — they were all very willing to participate. I think they believe very strongly in what this is all about. And the thing that impressed me tremendously was how extremely articulate these women — both the older ones, and the younger ones — were. You know, when I think of dancers, I think of the way they express themselves through movement. But these women were — all of them were just so incredibly articulate. And to get back to your earlier question, it was painful to cut back some of what they said, because a lot of them had interesting stories, or interesting points to raise that we just weren't able to use. One person in particular, Raven Wilkinson, who's one of the older dancers —

Jo Reed: And she danced with Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Frances McElroy: Right. Her interview was, I think, an hour-and-a-half long. Non-stop. And this was just with a camera pointed in her face. And she's told amazing stories.


<Raven Wilkinson: Here I had been in the Ballet Russe all these years, cultivating the classical name and having solos, and suddenly, someone came to me and said, “You’ve gone as far as you can in the company. After all,” they said, “we can’t have a black white swan.” She said, “Why don’t you get out and get a little group together and do African dance.” Well, that’s what you don’t tell people who have striven just to do what they want to do if they want to be a classical dancer, and you spend so much time and effort because the whole thing was, “Prove it. These people can’t dance classical dance.” I was just so tired I could feel it. I just felt exhausted — physically and emotionally. So I said, “I just have to stop for a while.”>

Frances McElroy: Now there’s a documentary. I think I was on a mission to present that these particular women had shown that they had enormous talent and ability, but they just didn't have the opportunity. They just at a certain point, even though they were tremendously able, they just weren't given the opportunity to move ahead. So they were sort of locked out.

Jo Reed: Like former ballerina, Dolores Brown.

<Delores Brown: You know, when you’re raised to believe the harder you work, you’re skilled at what you do, you’re educated at it — you should have a shot. There was nothing. I went to auditions, it didn’t matter. I would understand if you don’t have the quality — you don’t have to like every dancer — if you don’t have the ability. But when you’re not given the opportunity simply skin-deep, that’s a terrible problem.>


Frances McElroy: That is still the case.

Jo Reed: Yeah, we have the Misty Copeland, which is marvelous. But at the same time, it's the exception.

Frances McElroy: It is the exception, and I sense — because we've had lots of discussions about Misty Copeland <laughs>, as you can imagine. We wrestled a lot with how do you present it because she does have her own documentary, after all, to tell her story? We didn't want to revisit that. And we really just felt strongly, and we wanted to show there were others. Our story gives some history, some context, and it brings it up to date and shows that this is an issue that continues. And also, the important thing about this project is that it's really not just about ballet. I'm hoping, when people see it and get together and watch it in groups, that it’ll encourage discussion about larger issues of diversity and inclusion and equal opportunity. It's not just about ballet. We see it here, and this is a good way, I think, to get people talking about these other issues because it's a compelling story. It's interesting. It's beautiful to look at. But it's more than ballet.

Jo Reed: One takeaway for me was, obviously, the lack of opportunity, but, also, how connected that was to not seeing other black dancers on the stage doing ballet. So, it’s not even in your lexicon that this is a possibility, which, of course, means the pipeline becomes narrower and narrower.

Frances McElroy: Right, well, it does really all come down to exposure. You know, if you don't see other people like you pursuing this, that's another problem.

Jo Reed: And when you add to that cuts in arts education in schools you really create this perfect storm.

Frances McElroy: Yeah. You bring up the arts in the schools, I mean, that just magnifies it. Delores Brown and Joan Myers Brown both talk about how one of the things that really got them interested in ballet was in their high schools, there was a ballet club.

Jo Reed: I made a note about that.

Frances McElroy: Yeah. And those programs don't exist. And that's one of the wonderful things about Joan Myers Brown’s ballet schools because there are a lot of small children there, and they — some of them, not many probably, but a few — might get hooked. But it's because there are a number of them there taking class every Saturday. I mean, they're like, four, five, six-years-old. So there need to be more of those opportunities.

Jo Reed: Well, one opportunity that looks like it's being developed is at the Charlotte Ballet in collaboration with Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Frances McElroy: I found out about that collaboration when we interviewed Virginia Johnson up at Dance Theater of Harlem. And sort of around the same time, I had heard about Amanda Smith, an African-American ballerina who had recently been hired by the Charlotte Ballet. So I spoke with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the director of the company, and asked if I could come down and do some videotaping there and talk to Amanda, and he said, "Fine." So I found out more about this collaboration from him. He said that he'd known Virginia Johnson for years and had great respect for her. And they decided to have this partnership for three years where Charlotte Ballet would take two of her dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem from their younger dancers — their second company and whatever, not their main dancers — and to come down and dance with Charlotte for a year. So, we have a whole scene devoted to that particular experiment in the documentary, and it's really exciting. There were two young women who had come from New York City, and they go out once a week to one of the community centers outside of Charlotte where all these little kids come in, and they take ballet class. Otherwise, I'm sure most of these kids would never have been exposed, or probably have known about ballet.

Jo Reed: So they get to experience it with two black ballerinas, most of them are African-American, as well.

Frances McElroy: Right, right. And they also danced with Charlotte's second company, while they were on this year-long initiative. So one thing that we found kind of interesting — here is the Director of Charlotte Ballet, who is a native of France, and he was the one, along with Virginia Johnson, who initiated this experiment. You know, so you kind of scratch your head and wonder, "Well, was there something about the non-American thought process that thinks this is important more so than maybe some of our own people?"

Jo Reed: I thought it was also so interesting when he said he thinks the future of ballet is at stake. That if ballet stays a white art, it will die. He didn't say that, but that's the inference — that if ballet doesn't truly diversify, it doesn't have a future.

Frances McElroy: That's right! He was very open about saying that. You know, you need the audience. And that is one thing that Misty Copeland has been praised for. She has certainly changed the audience composition up at American Ballet Theater. And that's a good thing, but it has to be happening in more places than Lincoln Center.


<Ashley Murphy: My parents sacrificed a lot to keep me in dance. I’m so grateful that my parents were able to do that, but everybody’s parents aren’t able to afford that.>

Jo Reed: We just heard from Ashley Murphy, but in your film there’s another young dancer, Bianca, whose struggles and story really broke my heart.

Frances McElroy: I think Bianca and her story broke a lot of hearts. She is the most engaging, lovely young woman, and very open, very willing to share her emotions, as the documentary shows.

<Bianca Fabre: I went to so many auditions, I couldn’t even tell you, and they’re all so expensive. I had to call family members a couple of times to ask for money so I could go to auditions.>

Frances McElroy: It's very sad. I think she illustrates how — it's the story of a lot of young dancers, and not just black dancers, or dancers of color — if you don't have the resources, it's hard to make this as a career. So she sort of represents all the other young dancers who weren't able to make it for a number of reasons.

Jo Reed: What drew you to documentary filmmaking to begin with?

Frances McElroy: Well, it was sort of a circuitous route. I studied history and politics in college, and I decided when I was a senior in college, I decided to go down to Washington, and I volunteered for Senator Ted Kennedy for quite a while. Eventually got a job there in his senate office. I stayed for ten years. And then, I decided to come back to Philadelphia, and I thought, "Hm, what would I like to do?" And I was always interested in the arts, so one of the places I applied to was WHYY. And luckily, I was offered a position here. And while I was here, I became somewhat involved in the production end. I knew nothing. But I sort of learned on the job. All of the people who worked here were tremendous about sharing what they knew. So from that experience, I gradually got more interested in the long form and actually making productions. So that's more or less how I got involved. Ten years after I started at WHYY, I formed my own organization, Shirley Road Productions, which is a non-profit, and it's through that entity that I make my documentaries.

Jo Reed: Tell me how you choose your projects.

Frances McElroy: Well, often they're arts related, which should come as no surprise, but they're usually arts related with a social justice kind of bent. I like the arts to be used as a way to provoke thought about social issues. And that's certainly the case with Black Ballerina, and has been with some of the earlier pieces as well. But they have to be personally interesting to me. Usually based on something that maybe — in the case of the Black Ballerina project, I always loved ballet and studied ballet since I was about six-years-old. So some of the earlier ones also reflect my interest in some part of the arts, or human experience.

Jo Reed: What surprised you as you were doing these interview and looking through the archives and making Black Ballerina?

Frances McElroy: I guess, really, the openness of the dancers and the artistic directors that we spoke with and to express themselves in such an articulate way — to make the issue very easy to grasp. They made it very clear.

Jo Reed: Can you describe a day filming, and you just knew you were doing exactly what you were put on this earth to do?

Frances McElroy: <laughs> Well, after a really tremendous interview where you are really inspired and impressed and touched emotionally by someone's story — that, of course, is something that makes me happy to be on earth. But <laughs> also, when something comes out of these stories that presents this other dimension. That this is not just about the subject you're examining at the moment, but it has a larger dimension, and when that comes through, I’m very happy.

Jo Reed: Independent documentary filmmaking is not an easy business. And I think, in some ways, that's where the National Endowment for the Arts, for example, comes into play for the independent documentary film business.

Frances McElroy: First of all, you are absolutely right. It is not easy. <laughs> This last documentary, Black Ballerina, took four years — four full years — and that's typical. Raising money is unbelievably hard, particularly when your topic relates to the arts, which I find very troubling and very appalling. The National Endowment for the Arts is one of the few organizations that funds organizations like mine. We're a very small non-profit. And not only is the endowment willing to go out and fund organizations like mine, but the size of the grants are reasonable. They're tremendously appreciated. They make a real difference. I'm always grateful for the one and two thousand dollar contributions to our projects. I'm enormously grateful to the ten dollar contributions. But when you get — what I call, to me — a sizable grant, and then you get another one, that is tremendous. It's really important. It makes a big difference, and a lot of people see it. Through all the network of PBS stations, in my case, a lot of people see this, and I think it's a wonderful thing that our government does.

Jo Reed: When will Black Ballerina be out?

Frances McElroy: Well, American Public Television will be distributing Black Ballerina nationally, and we are very, very happy about that. It's going to be fed to the public stations in September, I believe, and then it's really up to the individual stations as to when they will schedule it. So, I would say starting in the fall of 2016, and I would anticipate through the end of 2016 and into 2017, it will probably be seen on PBS stations around the country. And we're also very interested in — and we started already — an outreach campaign. We’ll go to the public library to see it or to a school or to a community center. So, that's a big job, pulling that together, but I enjoy that part of it, and I think it's really important.

Jo Reed: Do you organize talkbacks at places like that where then you facilitate a discussion afterwards?

Frances McElroy: Yes, and that is what we intend to do with our whole outreach plan. We've done it a few times already. We were really pleased to have our rough cut screened by the Dance on Camera film festival. It was just the rough cut, but it was up at Lincoln Center. This was winter a year ago. And we had the screening up there, followed by just a few people on stage — Raven Wilkinson, Virginia Johnson, I was part of it. And the audience just stayed and stayed and stayed and asked question after question. It was great, and I just love that. You see the enthusiasm on people's faces or the concern or whatever it is that they're feeling. Yes, that's a big part of it. Just screening — you know, they can see it on television if they just want to look at it. That's fine. We're thrilled that anyone looks at it in any way, but to be able to talk about it and to extend the message beyond just ballet is important to me.

Jo Reed: Well, Frances, thank you so much.

Frances McElroy: You’re welcome, Jo.

Jo Reed: It was such a pleasure talking to you and to get a preview of Black Ballerina, which was, as I said, so very moving. You found great women to speak with.

Frances McElroy: Oh, they are.


Jo Reed: That is documentarian Frances McElroy. We were talking about her film Black Ballerina, which is now in post-production. Look for it in the fall. Many thanks to Frances for allowing me to use excerpts from the film. We heard from:

Joan Myers Brown,

Delores Brown,

Virginia Johnson,

Raven Wilkerson,

Bianca Fabre, and

Ashley Murphy.

You can hear my podcast with Joan Myers Brown on Look under podcasts. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Transcript available shortly.

Black Ballerina looks at different generations of dancers, but is it the same story?