HBS Online participant Ibe Imo writes about I-lab Venture participant La’Toya Princess Jackson and her life journey that led her to launch an original ballet production; with resilience and challenge, she confronts norms and reinvents possibilities to create spaces for black boys and girls.
La’Toya Jackson (Princess) was born in Fort Worth, Texas. She was raised by Sedalia Johnson, her great-grandmother, whom she affectionately called “Big Momma”. Billing itself as “the city of cowboys and culture,” Fort Worth is home to the largest indoor rodeo in the world and a place less likely to pursue a career in ballet.
As a young girl, Princess spent hours watching videos of Prince playing a white cloud guitar, singing Purple Rain. She would also dance with Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. During a weekday church service, Princess had her first solo performance, singing an old ghostly witty “Angels Watchin Over Me.” “I realized that I wanted to become an artist.”
“I took jazz dance lessons and played the violin and piano,” Princess said, recalling fond memories of Big Momma driving her to a dance class and patiently waiting to take her back to school. House. At 14, she was bored reading and replaying the same key notes.
After school, Princess returned home with Brittany Perry-Russell, a childhood friend and neighbor. Perry-Russell was an excellent dancer and introduced Princess to classical ballet. With little understanding of ballet training levels, Big Momma enrolled Princess in an advanced ballet class. To dance en pointe, ballerinas must begin their training around the age of eight. Princess was older and her jazz dance training was not adequate preparation.
“I remember feeling so uncomfortable. I failed so horribly. Not realizing that she could apply to be placed in a beginner class, she dropped out on the first day of ballet school. Throughout high school, Princess focused on songwriting and jazz dancing. She was about to become a cheerleader–a marching band artist who combines jazz dance moves with hip-hop.
Teenage Princess was struggling to build her sense of self and understand what she was good at when Perry-Russell left for California. Perry-Russell was now a professional dancer, appearing in the music videos of several Grammy Award-winning artists. “It was bittersweet,” Princess recalled. She was happy for her friend but also felt left behind. “I felt like I wasn’t good enough to pursue a dance career.”
Atlanta, also known as Black Hollywood, was the dream city. For Princess, “there was a Motown movement in the South”. She applied and was admitted to study Mass Media Arts at Clark University of Atlanta. Clark, the first historically black university in the Southeast, gave Princess the opportunity to immerse herself in her African American heritage.
Princess also enrolled at Spelman College and took classes in modern and jazz dance. A friend from college invited her to Urban Nutcracker ballet performance organized by Balethnic – Atlanta’s first African-American professional ballet company. As the snowflakes descended, the ballerinas waltzed with impeccable grace and uniformity. The princess was surprised to see black ballet dancers and delighted that the Waltz of the Snowflakes the performance remained true to classical ballet technique and Tchaikovsky’s musical score. “I didn’t know black ballerinas existed. They made me see myself in ballet.
A graduate of Clark and starting out as an evolving songwriter, Princess has worked with record labels like Universal Motown and Def Jam in Atlanta. She was also a voting member of the Recording Academy. The isms in the entertainment industry are not unique to Hollywood; Atlanta’s music and performance scene is also unforgiving. Princess has also experienced the exploitation and appropriation of her writing. One of the songs she wrote was in the album of a famous rapper and Grammy Award winner. Princess did not receive any compensation or credit.
While at Def Jam, Jay-Z’s successor EVP Shakir Stewart died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and Princess’ mentor Ernest Dion Wilson (No ID) suddenly left. working with Kanye West. Princess’ plans have been put on hold. “I was on the sidelines, and suddenly the doors closed.”
The climax of events left Princess out in the cold. She had to find a different path if she ever wanted to become an artist. Now a young adult, she was well beyond the traditional age to break into ballet. “I had to overcome my mental obstacles”, even if it means taking lessons with eight-year-old children. “Some of my challenges came from not having started earlier in ballet.” She took the lessons.
Princess now had a bigger mission, to become a ballerina and create a musical production that inspires black boys and girls. With the odds against her, she sought out people and organizations that would give her an opportunity. “I went around schools in Atlanta, submitting proposals to create ballet programs for girls and boys.” She founded LAPrincess Ballet Prep Academy, an outreach program for boys and girls. The Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta invited Princess to lead their ballet program throughout Atlanta.
There is a duck that black bodies are too curvaceous for ballet. “Fortunately, I’ve been skinny all my life,” Princess said, acknowledging biased judgments against black bodies in classical ballet. Subtle and overt discrimination continues to hold back black ballerinas. Even though Princess has trained at Balletthnic“we had to spray our pointe shoes to match our skin tones.”
Princess was admitted to the drama program at Harvard University. Her goal was to improve her technique as a dancer and explore the history of classic black ballet companies and their impact on black ballerinas. “Coming to Boston highlighted my blackness,” Princess said, with a deeper understanding of the glass ceilings that existed for black bodies in classical ballet.
The Boys and Girls Club of Boston incorporated the Princess’s Ballet Prep Academy into their arts outreach program, and she later became a teacher at Boston ballet. At Harvard, Princess’ company, LA Entertainment Group (LEG), has been selected for the Venture Incubation Program at the Innovation Lab (I-Lab).
The I-Lab made it possible to define the heart of the company, to understand how to raise capital and to organize to create Vanity Alley – an original fairy tale and ballet production. In Vanity Alley“main character ElectrKPrincess is enchanted by a spell and transported to Crystalline City. She embarks on a journey, where she confronts and overcomes three vanities. The Princess hopes Vanity Lane will ‘help encourage individuality and reject unhealthy standards of beauty’. Princess doesn’t just inspire young black boys and girls; its mission is to help the world reinvent the impossible.
Ibe Imo, an HBS Online participant, is a feature writer and Harvard graduate student majoring in journalism and digital storytelling. His storytelling aims to help highlight various dimensions of human experience and the emotions that bind people together. He enjoys outdoor activities including kayaking and track cycling along the Charles River. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.