Miami Dancer Hattie Mae Williams on Guerrilla Dancing and the Tattooed Ballerina Movement
You walk into a large room with high ceilings and walls made of massive mirrors. You are dressed in tights and a form-fitting leo, perhaps a pair of garbage bag shorts for the sake of menial comfort, and the floor has a slight spring beneath you. Every day that you walk into this place to hone your craft -- to dance and jump and bend and bound -- your teachers tell you how far from perfect you are, how wrong you and your body are. All of this gets wrapped in a skin of reflections on all four sides of the studio. More often than not, the sense of self that gets bounced back to you is a far less empowered, less complimentary image than you started off with.
Photo by: MFNY Hattie Mae Williams in all her Guerilla Glory
There are few art forms, sports, or professions in general for that matter, that involve as much emotional and physical wear and tear as dance.
It's a side of the art that most audience members never seriously consider. But if you spend a significant amount of time around professional dancers, it's impossible not to be affected by what they put themselves through for their passion. And while many people on both sides of the barre would say that that's simply the nature of the beast, others are not content to accept that idea of a subjugated self-image being an occupational hazard of doing what they love.
Hattie Mae Williams is one such dancer.
After graduating from New World School of the Arts in Miami, her hometown, then earning a degree with honors in choreography from Fordham/Alvin Ailey in New York City, Williams went on to form her own dance collective that she called the Tattooed Ballerinas. Now, ten years after the group's inception, Williams has been awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation's Knight Arts Challenge in her hometown and is continuing to find ways to educate, liberate, and inspire dancers.
Williams, a Miami native who, like so many of our city's talented young artists, found her way to success in New York, was happily surprised to win the Knight Challenge grant.
"I think the art world in Miami is really taking off, but the concept of a dance installation is still a new thing in Miami, so I was thrilled that they were open to it," she noted.
Hattie Mae Williams is not a ballet dancer for the most part. Her training at New World and later Fordham/Ailey was in modern dance, but her choreography is geared towards the most expressive means of expression, looking to be categorized as neither classical nor contemporary, but rather as raw and real and graceful. If you're wondering why they're called the Tattooed Ballerinas if they're not, strictly speaking, ballerinas, the answer is juxtaposition. There are few archetypes more associated with daintiness and prim perfection than the ballerina, and there are few cultural pastimes that are less dainty and more overtly against the idea of a perfectly prim body than that of getting tattoos. Throw the two together and you conjure up a hell of an interesting group of dancers.
"I've always done things on my own, I've always produced things on my own," explained Williams, "and ideas that I've had are not always accepted by the dance community because we're such an obedient audience. We want to come and sit down, we want to watch the show, we don't want to be bothered -- it's just kind of the structure we've formed in the dance community, which works for a lot of [people]. But I was more interested in reaching people who weren't necessarily always in an art scene, people who were in the midst of their everyday life. So a lot of my projects formed with me literally just having an idea and being inspired by a certain space and not taking the time or the care to ask for permission to do it there." She laughs before continuing, "It was just something that had to be done when it had to be done."
Her recent success with the Knight Foundation takes her a bit further out of the guerilla world than the Tattooed Ballerinas have gone thus far. The grant awards Williams $8,000 and permission to have access to two of Miami's most recognizable and aesthetically fascinating locations: Miami Marine Stadium in Key Biscayne and the Venetian Pools in Coral Gables.
"I'm going to start off doing the Miami Marine Stadium project first," she began. "The Venetian Pools project isn't going to happen until 2015 because we're collaborating with the city of Coral Gables and the Venetian Pools, so a lot of other red tape has to be sorted through and we're going to wind up doing it for the 90th birthday of both the city and the Venetian Pools."