At the age of eleven most of us are deciding between grape or lemonade Kool-Aid. Lindsey Croop wasn’t. Just out of elementary school, the Texas raised child faced a life altering decision—to devote herself to ballet or stay a free-wheelin’ kid unchained to rigorous duties. For a young Croop choosing to pursue dance might have simply been the next move, but it proved to be a step that took her far. She’s now the prima ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company founded in 1969 by Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, the second African-American in the New York City Ballet. She’ll be on stage with her company on Feb. 2 at the Koger Center in Columbia, SC. I spoke with her about her career, the art, and the South.
You studied all over the country and got your first steady position in Nashville to dance. What was it you took away from your time in Nashville?
Nashville Ballet was my first big gig. One of the things I loved was that we did a lot of outreach performances as well as the corps de ballet (the group work in bigger ballets) for the company, so I got a lot of experience. A big part of the outreach we did was taking shorter ballets into schools. It opened my eyes to how dance can inspire children and touch people . . . and communicate life lessons through the art — it’s a mode of communication and it became more than something that I just did for fun.
It seems like most ballet dancers want to move to towns like San Francisco and New York to make a career. But traveling around do you see dancers trying to go to mid-size towns like Richmond, Virginia, or other towns in the South?
Regional cities have great ballet companies and I think it’s easier for many dancers to have a “normal life” in companies in mid-size towns. One of my realities is that I’m on tour sixteen weeks of the year and I’m married now, so creating a work/life balance while on the road can be challenging. I think dancers can probably find a different quality of life in regional cities. The reality is dancers aren’t in the high-paying wage bracket so when I first moved to New York, I worked three jobs and lived in a 200 sq ft apartment. Dance-wise the companies are really excellent and provide a lot to the community and create great dance opportunities as well. I’d say that was the reason I originally went to Nashville Ballet. Basically, I thought I could be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond and, at the time, that’s the route I wanted to go.
So how’d that change?
I learned to dream big and to just go for it. At the end of Nashville Ballet it was “what do I want my next step to be?” And that was New York. It was a bigger market, more dancers, more companies. It is the hub. I learned to value having a dance community and the way that can force you to push yourself differently. When I got to New York I didn’t even realize just how much more I could grow and learn from these other dancers and people in the dance community.
So it’s a common thought that artists or those in creative fields have to struggle. It gives them the drive to want to overcome the realities of trying to make it. Was that the case for you? Did you ever struggle on your way to this position with the Dancer Theatre of Harlem? Or have things come naturally to you?
For me growing up biracial (my dad is black and mom is white) in the conservative town of Midland, TX, was something that I had to face. I struggled with where I fit in growing up. I always wanted to fit in but I think feeling different, knowing different, and knowing people have different perceptions of you [is challenging]. But in dance I felt like that never mattered. My parents always presented it as “you’re beautiful, you have two different cultures.” They always presented it as a positive thing but the outside world was like, “Why? You’re different” or “your parents shouldn’t be together,” different things like that. That’s one of the things I loved about dance. I felt like skin color didn’t really matter. It was about the work and what I was doing. And, it gave me an outlet to express myself with whatever I was feeling, and I didn’t have to face any of those questions.
I feel like ballet has been white dominated and that’s probably because the first opportunities for African Americans in ballet was during the twentieth century, but it’s a much older art than that. And Dance Theatre of Harlem is a response to that.
Well ballet started in the French courts, so it was started as something that was meant for more affluent people. I think, in general, socio-economic standards in the U.S. perpetuate that.
Do you plan to return to the South or to Texas at any point?
I loved living in Texas but I don’t have any plans for ever returning to the South. If anything, I want to live abroad and continue to grow my horizons.