Statistically speaking, it’s been proven that the benefits of arts education, as well as the needs of arts is vastly important. However, access to such programs and organizations can be pricey, intimidating and for some, simply out of reach.
“I allowed myself to be defeated and nobody did that but me,” says Chanel Holland.
Holland, at a very young age, fell in love with dance, specifically ballet. From age 4, she began dancing and over the years went on to perform at the New Freedom Theatre, Wissahickon Dance Company, attended the University of the Arts, the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and graduated with her BFA from Temple University. But when it came time to audition for her dream, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Holland joined the masses of many and was pushed out mentally and fiscally by a system that she spent most of her efforts building experience in.
“I never even auditioned for the Pennsylvania Ballet,” she admits. “I was like, ‘This is what they are going to be looking for and I’m not that…But they never told me that, I just always felt that. A lot of African-American young artists feel that way, it feels like it’s an impossible dream and it’s not.”
The idea of taking the impossible and making it within reach took on the form of a new ballet company started by Holland herself. In 2017, the ballerina was working as a lead teaching artist with Ballet X, a local contemporary ballet company, and also worked for Instacart and Uber Eats to make extra cash to start the Chocolate Ballerina Company all on her own. Her objective was to start a program that would allow adults to not have a financial burden—that meant offering classes, clothes and even rides to and from rehearsals for free.
“I wanted to provide [dancers] an opportunity,” Holland explains. “Even if they had danced when they were 18 and then left dance to become a doctor or a lawyer or any other field, and the passion was always dance, but it was the wrong timing or the wrong place…I wanted Chocolate Ballerina Company to be that company that revitalized their career and revitalizes that ability that you had. To be in in a ballet company with women who look like you and are shaped like you and not be judged or shamed for it… That was the whole purpose of me starting the business.”
The contemporary community-based dance organization’s main goal is to support the hidden talents in youth and adult artists of color in the Philadelphia region and illustrate the struggles and successes of African-American culture through dance. Holland explained that she literally saved every check she made to start the CBC, and through a partnership with an old classmate at the Equilibrium Dance Academy in South Philadelphia, the new company was offered studio space at a discounted rate. All of that led to the company’s first show and premiere.
“I don’t regret that sacrifice at all. It was worth it for me,” Holland says.
Chocolate Ballerina Company at first was open to adults, but then expanded and began to offer services for youth as well once Holland expanded her staff.
“I realized that I needed a team of professionals with the same passion that can help me evolve and help me have a fresh pair of eyes to open up to a whole lot of other opportunities that will help my business expand,” she says.
That expansion equaled out to hiring a team of professionals spanning ballet instructors, social media and PR managers and beyond to help grow the company.
“Once these people brought their creativity to the forefront, we just started to expand. You can’t be selfish with your career. Networking and creating partnerships is very important, that’s the only way you’re going to grow,” continues Holland.
But the need for growth at the Chocolate Ballerina Company doesn’t stop there.
“Definitely expect to grow as an artist and as a human being,” says Holland. “Chocolate Ballerina Company builds character through discipline. Whether you’re a 30-year-old dancer or a 3-year-old ballerina, there are expectations of excellence from every Chocolate Ballerina. Expect to have expectations that you may feel are well beyond you, but you’re very much capable of.”
Chocolate Ballerina Company hosts free dance classes for active and inactive artists who seek professional training, and by attending a free dance class, participants will spend an hour and a half learning a mixture of ballet—contemporary form and technical training. Chocolate Ballerina Company offers private lessons for ages 5 and up for $50 an hour, but for the most part, dancers who sign up from ages 8 and up tend to pay about $100 a month for four days of classes a week on top of free dance-wear that includes tights and ballet slippers. Over COVID-19, Holland even went as far as to nix costs so kids could still practice without their parents feeling strapped financially.
“My heart bleeds for every dancer who’s sitting at home and who feels like they’re counted out and who feels like they have no way out because this program has so much to offer beyond ballet,” says Holland.
The company plans on expanding in Atlanta, as Holland hopes to franchise the Chocolate Ballerinas, and the Philly chapter also hopes to return to live performances this summer with a newfound partnership with the New Freedom Theatre.
Everything the company stands for is meant to be inclusive for a community that hasn’t felt that in the dance world, specifically ballet. Holland may have started the dance organization with a dream, but it was one that not only helped her achieve what she wanted, but one that also breaks the door open for those who have their own desires as well.
“I just want people to know that Chocolate Ballerina Company is here for you…It’s made for you and for the community. If we don’t have the support and the abilities and the opportunities and the avenues to maintain in our own community, then we won’t be able to save lives— and we save lives through our education.”
For more information on the Chocolate Ballerina Company, visit chocolateballerinacompany.com