It’s early June 2020 when dancer Helga París-Morales and I hop on a phone call. She’s calling me from Puerto Rico, where she’s been quarantining due to the coronavirus pandemic. When the world came to a halt in early spring, performances and group classes were some of the first activities to be canceled. París-Morales, who lives in Washington DC, headed home to the Caribbean, where she’s been documenting her training and impromptu choreography like the rest of us – on Instagram.
On Day 30 of quarantine, she took to the social platform for a quick update: “Motivation is waning, the sun is getting hotter, I have unleashed the fro. Panic across the town is increasing, and I’ve had to escort 2 coqui frogs from my room.” But when we hop on the phone, her energy is high. “Thank you for this, en verdad,” she says as we begin our conversation.
París-Morales tells me she’s busy right now choreographing a virtual project for the Washington Ballet’s – the company she dances in– annual gala. Traditionally, these are held in person, accompanied by a performance and a fundraiser benefiting the company. But this year, she says, the company is doing something a little different. “We are doing a video instead,” she says, “The news is finally out today so I can say it.”
This is not her first time choreographing for the company. Her first commissioned work premiered in 2019 at Washington DC’s National Gallery in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Julie Kent, the renowned former dancer and director of the Washington Ballet, raved about París-Morales’s choreography on Instagram, calling her a “budding choreographer.” The ballet piece was set to Rosalía’s “Que No Salga La Luna,” a normal juxtaposition for París-Morales, who has mixed genres like bomba with classical ballet in the past.
Helga París-Morales was born in Puerto Rico but raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a community of very few Latinos. Music was always in her family and a good portion of her relatives live off this art. She took a different route, though, when she started dancing bomba as a kid and later eased into theater and dance classes at age 8. “My mom took me to release energies,” she recalls, “It was an after school activity because I was hyperactive.” At 13, she enrolled at the prestigious School for Creative and Performing Arts in Ohio, the set for MTV’s reality show “Taking the Stage.” She attended summer intensive programs at American Ballet Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Cincinnati Ballet. In 2019, she was offered a contract with Washington Ballet, a young but headline-making company led by Julie Kent (Kathleen in Center Stage, anyone?).
Stage costumes and makeup are one of the best parts about her job, says París-Morales. She first learned to do her makeup as a kid, she recalls, when her mom would teach her to do it herself the weeks prior to recitals. Then, there were Barbies, which she and her cousins used to play with often, doing their makeup, cutting their hair, and switching their outfits. But theatre made her understand that makeup was a special occasion. “If I wore makeup, I was going to do something important,” she says.
As a Black Puerto Rican woman in ballet, París-Morales is aware her presence inside a ballet studio is significant. Brown and Black women are not traditionally the stereotype of a ballerina and companies worldwide have made little to no efforts to change that. Ballet gear is also not made with diversity of skin tones in mind. It’s hard to make tights look like real skin when they never come in your skin color. “Everything is supposed to blend,” París-Morales says. “But for a Black girl, it’s hard to even find the gear.”
She also recalls constant microaggressions like being told “her would look bad” on stage or that “you couldn’t be darker than x-shade.”
The Internet has certainly shook up the ballet world. Once an elitist, closed circle, it’s now being forced to adapt to society’s push for diversity and inclusivity – whether in race, gender roles, and body types. In 2017, pointe shoe company Gaynor Minden announced it’d start making shoes in darker nude shades, while companies have started moving past its monolithic stereotypes embracing Black ballet stars like Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, and Precious Adams. In 2015, Misty Copeland made headlines when she became American Ballet Theatre’s first Black principal dancer. It took 75 years for this to happen.
Still, París-Morales thinks a real change needs to be systematic. “I think companies are trying to make it diverse, but not really inclusive,” she says, adding people who run companies, performances, or even the patrons are not as diverse as the dancers may start to look like. “They have their own interests.”
At Washington Ballet, she may not have a seat at the table. But she’s brought her own chair to the function. She’s using social media to inspire other Black girls and raise awareness about the lack of diversity in ballet and is working both on and off stage to diversify and rethink ballet for the 21st century, including genres like flamenco and bomba in her choreography. “I hope to start a new technique in ballet,” she says. “It can be done and it’s beautiful.”