Black & beautiful: A dancer’s path

An interview with Alexis Britford

By: Trinity Stevens

“Loyal, intuitive, bubby, introverted, and observant.” Alexis Britford is all these things. She is also, “athletic, vulnerable, inviting, stable, and energetic.” Everything a dancer should be. However, she knows what it is like to be the only black ballerina in the studio. Alexis’s dance journey has had its challenges, but it has also had its rewards.

First stepping foot into a dance class in Columbus, Ohio in 1989, Alexis fell in love at once. She continued to take classes at various studios in Ohio until age 10, when she joined the Columbus Youth Ballet. During her time there, Alexis took part in Youth Grand Prix competitions. Her single mother, who was a pastor, worked hard to make sure that Alexis and her sister fueled their passion for the arts. 

When it came time to attend high school, Alexis focused on studying classical ballet at the North Carolina School for the Arts. Upon graduating in 2005, she began her undergraduate studies at the Boston Conservatory. After spending 2 years in Boston, Alexis transferred to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

While completing her bachelor’s degree in dance, Alexis could dance with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company II. She was promoted to the first company upon her graduation from Wright State in 2009. She continued to dance with them for seven years and even performed at Lincoln Center.

Alexis considers this moment to be one of her career highlights. All the challenges that come with a dance career (feeling lonely, not getting to see family or be at family events, having people not believe in you, or think that you cannot be a successful ballerina because you are black, the struggles of weight and finances), all seem worth the while when you get to dance for the people you admire.

After her time in Dayton, Alexis moved to L.A. She did some more modern work there as a freelance artist. Alexis then came to Cleveland receiving a contract from Neos Dance Theatre, where she was happy to be back in pointe shoes again. Most recently, she danced with GroundWorks DanceTheater for two years until the pandemic. 

Alexis’ story is just one of the many dance journeys out there. She passes along this piece of advice to aspiring dancers, especially to those who have been in her shoes as the only black ballerinas in the room: “Trust your love for the art. Love is not always joyful, you have to work for it. But always maintain the why. And that makes it all worth it.”

Alexis is not completely sure what the future holds for her, but she has been applying to grad schools. She sees herself wanting to go into movement therapy, specifically for dancers and other ballerinas of color. 

“I want to unpack the trauma that can result from those harsh studio settings, by helping instructors/educators reconstruct their mindset. To still achieve all the positives of dance, but without the negative reinforcement,” Alexis states.

Currently, Alexis is an adjunct faculty member at Cleveland State University and teaches ballet at various other studios around the Cleveland area. She has used this time during COVID-19 to rediscover who she is as a dancer at this point in her life.

“It is about the connection. With yourself, your fellow dancers, the audience. I feel it is the most human form of expression. Little kids are not afraid to just move around freely and be themselves, but we tend to lose that as we grow up. Dance can help us express those everyday personal struggles to the larger societal issues. It helps us reconnect with ourselves,” Alexis said.

Alexis Britford; Photo by Kevin Inthavong