Interview With Daphne Lee Highlights

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

Q: What inspired or motivated you to be a dancer?

A: I just remember going to the Juilliard audition and out of all those students I made it through the last fit. And it was at that moment when the light bulb kind of went off. I also got rejected from NYU but I got accepted to the Ailey/Fordham Program and I think that’s where I realized this is a whole brand new thing–– being a part of a dance institution like I have never done before. I think that was kind of the triggering moment where I thought, “Okay, let me give this a try. I think I like this. This could be my career. Let me see what I can make out of it.” But it was not something I went into just easily knowing that this was going to be the case for me at the end.

Some kids have that passion really early and they say they are going to be this dancer when they grow up. I said I was going to be a doctor. That confidence did not come out until much later for me. So I think if you have the confidence to say you want to do something in that nick of time. Same thing for my mother– she was a track runner and decided to start dance at 15, and got into a company by 18. So again, it’s about determination and about how far you really want to go. It was definitely not something that I said I wanted to do at a young age.

Q: What other companies have you been with along with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and how long have you been in each?

A: I am not new to the company, but I am familiar with the morganization since I did a summer intensive there. Prior to that I was living in Memphis Tennessee; I danced with Collage Dance Collective for a few years. Great company because they have so much cool rep. Their rep is completely unique. You get to do a little bit of everything: from dancing in water to pointe shoes to classical to contemporary. And then prior to that officially company wise, I was with Ailey II. So that was something that came right through during my college years. And between those three stages, I also been guesting with Oakland Ballet, worked with Black Iris Project to this day, did some guesting and gigs here and there. Those are the three main companies that I was part of–– just short little times with them.

Q: Have you witnessed or seen any racism during your professional career or even before that?

A: Yes, I definitely saw different racial things. Just maybe with casting, maybe with questioning What kind of tights do you want to wear? What kind of shoes? What about your hair texture? Can your hair get into this look or whatever it may be? But I have never been heavily discriminated against because I have only been in companies that had already flourishing BIPOC community members so Dance Theatre of Harlem, Collage… They were the majority of minorities. Even in Oakland Ballet, I didn’t face any discrimination but it was cool how the artistic director was quite inclusive with choices I wanted ot make wearing pink tights or wearing brown ties, how I wanted to style my hair and make artistic choices. So I think for me, there could have been things, maybe I didn’t see. But nothing clearly directed to me because again, I was always in spaces that were quite inclusive and diverse. Just to avoid that, and to not didn’t have to do anything with me per say.

I think for dancers who are in traditional ballet companies, they will face a little bit more and more bombarded per say. But again, I think a lot of people have more cultural consciousness, and they are aware of what’s being said, what’s being done, what’s happening on stage, behind stage, development, marketing, tokenism, etc. I think that more that more that happens things are clearing up and this progress to be made.

Q: What do you think should change in the ballet world?

A: There is so much. Addressing the issue of who is in finances, who is in marketing, who are the stage hands… I think that collectively there can be more contamination of diversity in many different fields. But also looking into our ballets, not just having BIPOC choreographers and movers, but what about the stories that are being told? Can we question the classical ballets? Are these ballets still relevant? What about them do we amplify and what do we not? Just finding more ways of being more inclusive. There has to be a stream of consciousness through everything within the ballet world. Whether that’s from the artist, to the artistic directors, to the music score, to what we look like, whose voices are amplified and for who, and which audience members. I think it’s not one singular thing but it has to start with almost everything at the same time in order to fully converge that and to share that message of what needs to change.

Blackface and Yellowface, that’s absolutely something that we need to work on, but part of me is like let’s keep it too. Only because it’s a huge reminder. If it goes away, then we have no history of that, we lose it. It’s kind of like the same issue when it comes to the monuments of the people who enslaved Africans. Yes, let’s take them down from the locations, but let’s put them in a museum to still keep a representation of what was. We don’t want to fully get rid of it because we end up repeating it later on. And I think that’s such a teachable moment. Yes, do I think it’s offensive. Absolutely. But then putting a disclaimer in the program or somebody coming out and saying, “This ballet features Blackface, this ballet features Yellowface. It’s because we are staying true to the history of it.” Or, we are saying “Hey, we are letting you know that we are getting rid of this altogether.” So there are different ways of approaching it, but they are teachable things. Same things on Turner classic movies; they still show movies with Blackface, but before every single movie, they explain why they are showing it, why this was the time, just so people are aware and it’s not like the stations or that people don’t care. It’s just the moment of time that they are teaching and they are relating to. Yeah, it’s crazy that they still do that. There are black people around, and you can hire black dancers to actually do the role. There’s options about how to handle different ways of how people have been treated within ballet.

Q: Can you tell us more about the work you are doing including the Daphne Lee Artistic Legacy Award?

A: I did a little bit of pageantry because I wanted to gain some scholarship money for pursuing my Masters degree. And within that pageant program, I was able to secure creating a scholarship for women of color who wished to pursue a degree in the performing arts. So it’s still going on to this day. Any woman of color who has a degree or wants to go to college for performing arts can apply, and it's $25,000. It’s a cute little something to help with school. It’s open to anyone who is interested in becoming a dancer, musical artist, musical theatre, vocal contemporary, vocal classical, musicians… any of the performing arts which is really really neat. It has been going on for three years now. I always start it every February in the beginning of Black History Month, and I always announce the winner on Juneteenth. Those are the two Black historica months and I have that time frame where people can apply for the degree that they wish for the scholarship money.

There's not a lot of dance scholarships. There are not a lot of scholarships for people who want to pursue that degree, and if it is, a lot of it is for boys. So, I wanted to amplify the voices of female BIOC community members who are pursuing degrees in dance.

Q: What gives you hope during these times?

A: I’m not hopeless. I think I don’t know what’s giving me hope because I never lost hope through this time. I am one of those people that I’ve gotten through so much already. You can only be so low at some point, and then there is a point where your life just has to change.

So my mother passed away in 2020. Right at the beginning, 7 days after New Years. And then of course, COVID hit and etc. So I think what got me through was just knowing again that it’s that concept of a moment in time and it’s so important to live. I think that people are so afraid of the unknown and that’s a little bit of society’s fault. We love shooting fear into people and giving them this idea of hope. You have to maintain that throughout, you have to maintain your hope, you have to maintain your fate. And just know that everything that’s meant to change will change. It’s not going to last forever, but you have to live through it. You have to live through it and see things for what they are, and just acknowledge. Also when embracing your own emotions. It’s not going to be happy to go dandy every single day. It’s going to be frustrating. It’s going to be annoying to be on Zoom and with you in person.

But again, I am not looking at that, I am looking towards one day meeting you in person, I am looking towards one day getting back on stage. I think the whole idea of hope is that things are constantly influx, things are constantly shifting. And I think if you think that way, you can’t take life seriously only yourself. You just have to go through that whole motion.

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