When Nia Faith Betty, co-founder of social-change digital network and clothing line Révolutionnaire, was 14 years old, she was on her way to becoming a professional ballet dancer. She trained eight to 10 hours a day at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City, one of the most prestigious dance schools in the world with an acceptance rate of just 4.6 percent.
Toronto-born and raised, Faith Betty had been away from home for dance before, but studying at Joffrey would mean dedicating her life to dance.
“After being accepted, I left behind my family, my school, my friends, and moved off to New York by myself,” Faith Betty says, “I lived in a dorm, trained throughout the day and performed in the evenings, and then I’d come home and do all my schoolwork online.”
She still carries a lot of those memories today.
Faith Betty’s fondest experience was performing The Nutcracker with the school.
“I’ll never forget my first Nutcracker in New York,” Faith Betty says, “I remember the feeling of being on stage and having the understanding that my dream came true, which was really exciting for me.”
The dancer says that while there have been countless positive moments in her career that stand out to her, her experiences facing racism in dance linger on as well. Some instances were subtle. She’d walk into a dance apparel store and they’d only have pink and light skin-toned leotards or tights available, despite the appearance of single-coloured, long bodily lines being an important aesthetic aspect of ballet.
“When I’d go shopping with my friends, they could just get their tights, their shoes and go right off to class or rehearsal,” she says, “but I’d have to go home and dye everything because there were no options for dancers of colour and that always made me feel othered.”
Others were aggressively, inexcusably discriminatory, an issue that exists internationally in ballet, whether it be at auditions or before ballet exams.
“Before I could even place my hand on a barre, the other Black dancers and I were put in a separate room from our non-Black peers,” Faith Betty says, recalling her ballet exams in Toronto when she was told to learn exam choreography off of a video, while the choreographer worked in-person across the hall with the non-Black dancers.
“When we scored lower on our dance exams, it was made to be a point that we couldn’t dance,” she says, “that we weren’t made to be in ballet, rather than recognizing that there were clear inequities and that the odds were stacked against us because of the racism that was there.”
When Faith Betty was 16 years old, she broke a bone in her foot. She pushed through the pain, dancing on the injury for nearly a month before the overworking resulted in a torn ligament in the opposite ankle, and the dancer was forced into bed rest.
During her healing time, Faith Betty spent hours thinking about the industry she was working so hard to break into, and the lack of inclusivity in it for racialized dancers. How could Black dancers commit so much time, talent, and hard work into ballet, only to be made to feel unwelcome or invisible once in the space?
She considered her own experiences, as well as those of other professionals she’d met along her journey.
“When I was 12 years old, I had the opportunity to meet Misty Copeland for the first time,” Faith Betty recalls, thinking back on her encounter with the copiously decorated, first Black principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre.
Copeland was signing Faith Betty’s shoes when the dye began to run onto her hands. The young dancer was mortified and began apologizing to the ABT star until Copeland told her not to worry, and that the same thing happens to her shoes all the time.
It was then that the gears began turning for Faith Betty.
“If not even one of the top dancers in the world has access to apparel and accessories in her skin tone, what are other young Black dancers such as myself supposed to do?” she wondered.
And in 2019, Nia Faith Betty began Révolutionnaire, a diversity-inclusive clothing brand for racialized dancers, with her sister, Justice.
“The meaning behind the company’s name is the idea that the brand is truly a revolutionary product for the dance world,” says Justice. “And what’s been really lovely about that word is that it’s given us the flexibility to move beyond just dance, but to be revolutionary in all aspects of change-making, not just dancewear.”
Today, Révolutionnaire is not only a clothing line but also a digital network led by 30 leading activists across North America dedicated to educating users on global issues, promoting social justice movements in their local communities and providing them with the resources to take part in the action.
“Whether it’s articles, action guides, or specific tools such as a petition generator or finding volunteer opportunities, we want to build out this hub for more young people like us to come together and make change,” she says. “Whether they’re emerging or established activists, there’s a place for them and recognition.”
From a social justice standpoint, Nia says that her proudest work with the company was when they put together a donation drive for those affected by the volcanic eruption in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Révolutionnaire shipped down a 40-foot container with over one million dollars worth of fiscal donations, such as hygiene necessities, clothing, and PPE, and were able to reach over 16,000 people in St. Vincent.
As for the clothing line, the company has expanded into creating everyday wear as well as dancewear. They recently partnered with Roots on their “Dreams Fuel Revolutions” t-shirt, where partial proceeds are donated to The Black Academy, an organization dedicated to supporting Black art, entertainment, and culture. Together, the sisters remain focused on their guiding principle of shifting ballet culture so racialized dancers finally feel seen and validated in clothing made for them, specifically.
“Every time we get an email or see little girls in Révolutionnaire tights getting really excited that it matches their skin tone, that makes me proud,” says Nia.
And thanks to the Faith Betty sisters and those championing them, diversity in dance has grown throughout the years, in Canada as well as across the border.
“I was having a conversation with Julie Kent, who is the artistic director of the Washington ballet, about the inclusivity on their board,” Nia recounts. “A lot of dance companies, even those in Toronto, do not have inclusive boards or within their executive boards, which highly impacts the dancers who are within the company.”
According to their website, 18 percent of the Board of Directors at the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada identify as BIPOC, a three percent increase from 2017. They’ve also formed an internal EDI task force with communities from all departments of the organization in 2018. The task force meets monthly.
The National Ballet’s website takes pride in its diverse dancers as well, stating that their dancers “hail from 16 countries, speak 13 languages with 18 company members identifying as BIPOC/non-Caucasian.”
“While there is progress in diversity around who gets put on stage, the company culture will never change until the people who we want to amplify actually have a seat at the board and executive table,” says Faith Betty. “And it starts with the top.”
Now a third-year dance major at Howard University and one of the most powerful influences on the aesthetic of the industry, while Faith Betty might not yet realize it, she’s well on her way to securing one of those seats atop the dance world.