Ibe Imo, a HBS Online participant, writes about La’Toya Princess Jackson, an I-lab Venture participant, and her life journey that led her to launch an original ballet production; with resilience and challenge, she confronts norms and reinvents the possibilities of creating 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 referred to as “Big Momma”. Claiming to be “the city of cowboys and culture,” Fort Worth is home to the world’s largest indoor rodeo and a place less likely to have a career in ballet.
As a young girl, Princess spent hours watching videos of Prince playing the White Cloud Guitar, singing Purple Rain. She would also dance on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. During a weekday church service, Princess had her first solo performance, singing a spiritual old black “Angels Watchin Over Me”. “I realized that I wanted to become an artist. “
“I took jazz dance lessons and played violin and piano,” Princess said, recalling fond memories of Big Momma leading her to a dance class and patiently waiting to bring her home. . At 14, she was bored reading and replaying the same clef 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 on pointe, ballerinas should start training around the age of eight. Princess was older and her experience in jazz dancing was not adequate preparation.
“I remember feeling so inadequate. I failed so horribly. Not realizing that she could apply to be placed in a beginner’s class, she dropped out on day one of ballet school. Throughout high school, Princess focused on music writing and jazz dancing. She was settling down to become a cheerleader–A fanfare performer who combines jazz and hip-hop dance movements.
Teenage Princess struggled to build her self-esteem and understand what she was good at when Perry-Russell left for California. Perry-Russell was now a professional dancer, appearing in music videos for several Grammy-winning artists. “It was bittersweet,” Princess recalls. She was happy for her friend but also felt left out. “I felt I was not good enough to pursue a career in dance.”
Atlanta, also known as Black Hollywood, was the city of dreams. 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 Southeast’s first historically black university, provided Princess with the opportunity to immerse herself in her African-American heritage.
Princess also enrolled in Spelman College and took modern and jazz dance lessons. A friend from college invited her to Urban Nutcracker ballet show organized by Ballethnic – Atlanta’s first professional African-American ballet company. As the snowflakes descended, the ballerinas waltzed with impeccable grace and consistency. Princess was surprised to see black ballet dancers and delighted that the The waltz of snowflakes the performance remained faithful to classical ballet technique and Tchaikovsky’s musical score. “I didn’t know black ballerinas existed. They made me see me in the ballet.
A Clark graduate and debutant 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. Isms in the entertainment industry is not unique to Hollywood; Atlanta’s music and performance scene is also fierce. Princess also experienced the exploitation and ownership of her songwriting. One of the songs she wrote was on a famous rapper’s and Grammy Award-winning album. Princess has not received any compensation or credit.
While at Def Jam, Shakir Stewart, the EVP who succeeded Jay-Z, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and Ernest Dion Wilson (No ID), Princess’s mentor, suddenly left work with Kanye West. Princess’s plans have been put on hold. “I was on the sidelines, and suddenly the doors closed.”
The climax of events left Princess 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 get into ballet. “I had to overcome my mental obstacles”, even if it meant 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 larger 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 drove around Atlanta schools, submitting proposals to create ballet programs for girls and boys. She founded LAPrincess Ballet Prep Academy, an awareness program for boys and girls. The Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta invited Princess to conduct their Atlanta-wide ballet program.
There is a duck that black bodies are too curved for ballet. “Fortunately, I’ve been skinny my whole life,” said Princess, acknowledging the biased judgments against black bodies in classical ballet. Subtle and overt discrimination continues to hold back black ballerinas. Even though Princess has practiced Ballethnic, “We had to spray paint our tips to match our skin tones. “
Princess was admitted to the Drama Program at Harvard University. Her goal was to improve her dancing technique and explore the history of classical black ballet companies and their impact on black ballerinas. “Coming to Boston brought to light my darkness,” said Princess, with a deeper understanding of the glass ceilings that existed for black bodies in classical ballet.
The boys and girls of the Boston Club incorporated Princess’s Ballet Prep Academy into their arts awareness program and subsequently became a teacher at Boston Ballet. At Harvard, Princess’s company, LA Entertainment Group (LEG), has been shortlisted for the Business 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 oneself to create Vanity aisle – an original production of fairy tale and ballet. In Vanity aisle, “the main character ElectrKPrincess is enchanted by a spell and transported to Crystalline City. She takes a journey, where she confronts and overcomes three vanities. The princess hopes Vanity Lane “will help encourage individuality and reject unhealthy beauty standards.” 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 attendee, is a reporting writer and Harvard graduate student with a focus on journalism and digital storytelling. Its storytelling aims to help highlight various dimensions of the human experience and the emotions that unite people. He enjoys outdoor activities including kayaking and trail biking along the Charles River. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.