Ballerinas Kennedy George and Ava Holloway pose in front of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, VA on June 5th amid protests for the statue's removal.
Like many cities across the United States, #BLM protestors and activists took to the streets in Richmond, VA to call for
systematic changes to policing in this country following the recent murders of unarmed Black men and women including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rashard Brooks. And like many of these cities, Richmond also has its own recent case of an officer murdering an unarmed Black man-- Marcus-David Peters. For nearly two years, activists pushed for the Marcus Alert to be adopted, a measure calling for trained professionals to respond to 911 calls for any person exhibiting signs of a mental health crisis. Mayor Stoney finally agreed to reform measures including the Marcus Alert as a result of heightened pressure from protestors in recent weeks.
Richmond also has been home to a long-standing debate about what to do with the Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, a major thoroughfare through the city. While this conversation was renewed following the violence in Charlottesville, ultimately these tributes to white supremacy remained in place until this past month when #BLM protestors decided they weren’t going to wait any longer for officials to do the right thing. Many instead reclaimed these statues through graffiti. The community held inclusive and celebratory events around the spaces that had once been so polarized. Some of the smaller statues around Richmond were toppled as well, though the City of Richmond ultimately removed the remaining ones along Monument Avenue save one: Robert E. Lee. The state has control of this statue, but its removal is currently being blocked by a court injunction.
While many powerful images emerged and continue to emerge from the ongoing protests, the photographs of Ava Holloway and Kennedy George performing ballet against the backdrop of the Robert E. Lee statue stood out to me the most and, based on the number of times these images have been shared, it’s obvious they resonated with a lot of other people as well. I had the privilege of talking with Kennedy and Ava about the photos, the role art can play in protest, and their background as ballerinas. When I interview anyone, I typically cut out a lot of the content to make the piece more succinct, but I didn’t do that here. Below is the exact transcript from our conversation, as I felt all of their words and insights were not just powerful, but necessary. With young people like Kennedy and Ava at the helm, the future of this country looks far brighter than many of us could have ever imagined.
LC: Before I get into the photos that seem to have been seen around the world (!), I wanted to hear a bit more about your connection to ballet and your backgrounds. How long have you both been dancing? Do you have a favorite(s) dancer who inspires your work?
Ava: I have been dancing for 11 years at Central Virginia Dance Academy and one of my favorite dancers that inspires my work is Misty Copeland. I also was Co-Captain of my middle school dance ensemble, Joni.
Kennedy: I’ve been dancing at Central Virginia Dance Academy for 11 years now. We were both introduced to dance because our siblings also danced together. I’ve been attending summer intensives since I was 10 years old and am currently attending Richmond Ballet’s summer intensive. Dance has always been a way for me to express myself and become a better person. Along with that, came a huge amazing dance family, inspiring mentors, and life-long best friends. Dance of course is a lot of hard work, long struggles, and sweat and tears, but it is equally as rewarding and joyous. I am beyond thankful for dance, I couldn’t see a life without it. My favorite dancer who really inspires me is Debbie Allen.
LC: What would you say to African American girls in particular who are interested in getting involved in ballet? What advice do you have for them?
Ava: I would say to be unafraid to try it. It’s very challenging, but it pushes you physically and mentally. Just trust and believe in yourself. Ballet is also what you make it, if you go into it with a bad attitude that is exactly what you get out of it. Also, I would tell them that there will always be people that will try and tear you down, but do not let your head fall and keep doing what you love.
Kennedy: I would let them know that ballet challenges every aspect of you physically, mentally and emotionally. It takes determination, consistency, and self-motivation. You may not look like the “typical” ballerina or even like the other ballerinas in your classroom, but never doubt yourself or compare yourself to others. Know that you deserve as much a chance as the next person if you’re dedicated and hardworking. You are different and that is a good thing. Diversity is beautiful and when you doubt yourself, just remember that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. Be proud of where you are and how hard you worked to get there. Don’t let anyone tell you what you’re capable of doing. Always be kind and support your fellow dancers and show that same kindness and support to yourself.
LC: I’ve read you’re both Honor’s students. What are your favorite subjects?
Ava: My favorite subjects are science and my two languages, Latin and Chinese.
Kennedy: My favorite subjects in school this past school were French and Geometry. As I move onto high school, where I will attend the Center for the Arts specialty center for dance, I know dance will be my favorite subject in school.
LC: I’ve seen many powerful photos of Confederate monuments in the wake of the #BLM protests, but the photos of the two of you moved me in a way none of the others did. Why do think so many people of all races and backgrounds and from all over the world are connecting to these images?
Ava: Ballet is known to be the foundation of dance and has always been a very white art form, so there are even some people around the world that have never seen a Black ballet dancer. I believe these images were so powerful simply because the beauty of ballet typically isn’t seen alongside something so oppressive. I would also say our pictures are a way of protest using our gifts, and you don't see that as often as you should. Some people think you can only protest by marching, but there are a lot of ways you can get involved.
Kennedy: Going along with what Ava said, I do believe a part of it is because it’s very rare for people to see Black or brown ballerinas, especially young girls that are taking a stand for change. I feel as though it also strikes people’s curiosity and instantly catches people’s attention. Many ballerinas of color connect because they understand the struggle they have to go through and how hard it is. One of the main purposes of why we chose to wear what we wore was to also incorporate the dance community into the Black Lives Matter movement. As you know, the ballet community is not very diverse so we wanted to show diversity and remind ballerinas everywhere that we are beyond capable and matter. You shouldn’t fear diversity, embrace it. The dance community is such a strong, caring, and supportive group of people. Wherever they go they shed light, joy, and knowledge. I wanted to show the world how powerful the dance community is. Dancers truly are a different breed.
LC: I was ecstatic when I saw Iman and Courtney Love had re-Tweeted your photos because I’m a huge fan of both of them, but who were you most excited about sharing your photos?
Ava: I was most excited about Madison Bailey, also known as Kiara from Outer Banks, sharing our photo.
Kennedy: I was also most excited about Madison Bailey. Ava and I almost lost our minds that night. I was also excited about Misty Copeland, Reese Witherspoon, and Christina Aguilera.
LC: Aside from celebrities knowing your names, in what other ways have your lives changed since the photos have gone viral? Have there been challenging moments?
Ava: There have been so many wonderful experiences that have happened since June 5. We started a scholarship through Brown Girls Do Ballet for Brown ballerinas who would otherwise not be able to dance without financial assistance, we are starting a non-profit (Brown Ballerinas for Change) with fellow dancers Shania Gordon and Sophia Chambliss to encourage more Black dancers to use their gifts to promote change, and I’ve written a book with my Mom called My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams about a Black ballerina staring down Gen. Robert E. Lee. It’s been a little challenging balancing our schedules, but we’ve made it (work).
Kennedy: Since the photos, we have gotten to experience once in a lifetime opportunities and so many amazing outcomes. I have been extremely busy trying to show my appreciation to everyone who is supporting me and also sharing their amazingly powerful art. We’ve been in the studio for hours creating and rehearsing dances to perform at such a very short notice. Ava and I have been able to create a scholarship through Brown Girls Do Ballet as well as started a nonprofit organization, Brown Ballerinas for Change with our other dance sisters, Sophia Chambliss and Shania Gordon. It’s sometimes challenging to read some of the hateful and negative comments that people have made, but I don’t allow it to affect me. It motivates me even more to advocate for change. We’ve been blessed enough to be able to tell our stories throughout many of these interviews. I am beyond grateful for the people I’ve gotten to meet and how powerful these photos have been to many.
LC: I confess to not knowing a lot about the Confederate statues when I first moved to Richmond in 2005. Having grown up outside of Philly, the Civil War wasn’t something people talked about much. That’s not to say there’s not a lot of racism in Philly and other cities in the Northeast. The police violence throughout the protests this past week demonstrates it has many of the same problems with systematic racism and they also removed a statue in Philly, though their statue was of a racist past mayor and police commissioner. Confederate symbolism was something that was new to me when I moved here, however. How do you think your photos help tell the story of the monuments (why they were erected, the struggle to remove them, why they must be removed, etc…) for those who don’t live in the American South?
Ava: I think that the history of the South is very complicated. You don’t see a slave ship for example or any reference of slaves on Monument Ave. These statues aren’t about resilience. They are about resistance. The story told there is very deliberate and it’s about a Southern pride that was rooted in slavery. I think our photo helps to challenge that story. It asks people to see us and our humanity. It challenges the idea that removing the statues erases history. It asks others to see the humanity of Black Americans.
Kennedy: I wasn’t surprised that many didn’t know about these Confederate statues, I had only been introduced to them a limited amount of times and I live in Richmond. The thought of these statues still standing and what they stand for is absolutely disgusting and 100% unacceptable. Many think that if they remove them then “history will repeat itself.” These stories and images belong in museums, history books, online, etc. They do not need to be placed in the middle of the city where they no longer stand for what they stood for in the past. Also many people directed their attention to the graffiti written on the statue, that was not the main message from our photo. Many people took issue with it. Many people are more angered at the graffiti than what is going on in the world with Black people and police brutality today. But finally their racism is showing. This picture brought attention to the statue, made people listen, and now many of the other statues of Confederate generals have been taken down. See how powerful united people can be?
LC: How do you think your photos challenge those who do live here but are against removal to re-see their opinion?
Ava: Because we are still so young I feel that there are people out there that go off of their parents’ beliefs, I want to encourage those who do live here to look past that and see what is truly right and what should be expected for all races. Just because your parents have one opinion does not mean you have to follow it. I also want to encourage them to be different and be willing to have these tough conversations with those that are against removal.
Kennedy: My hope is that many question and deeply think about their decision to not remove the statue. I believe that their privilege does not allow them to see that what these statues represent is pain, hatred, and inequality for people of color. I also believe that many people are stuck in the past. I think that if you’re not a part of the change that’s occurring now you’re truly missing out and contributing to the problem. So please educate yourself and consider others’ perspectives.
LC: There’s a powerful caption on one of the photos reading, “We are our ancestors' wildest dreams.” What would you say to your ancestors if you could have a conversation with them today?
Ava: My Mom says that to us all the time. We talk about ancestors a lot and our obligation to do the right thing even when it’s hard. We talk about the cost of freedom. If I could talk to my ancestors, I would want them to know that we’ve picked up where they left off. I was really lucky to grow up with my great-grandmothers (Violet Gordon, Gertrude Coles, and Beulah Davis), being a strong influence in my life and I hope they are proud of me.
Kennedy: If I could have a conversation with my ancestors, I would tell them that there has been progress but there is more work to do and we’re doing the work. I would ask that they continue to give me strength through the racism that still exists, allow me to stay positive, and be the change I want to see in the world.