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Lauren Anderson
A Leader with a Servant’s Heart

Ms. Anderson currently serves as the Program Manager of Education and Community Engagement  at the Houston Ballet where she teaches and instructs children in schools throughout the Houston area.  She has a special passion for underserved inner-city youth and she particularly enjoys sharing her love for dance with elementary school students.  HB’s Education and Community Engagement department serves between 18,000 -20,000 students annually, and Ms. Anderson is a vital part of the program’s reputation, effectiveness, and success.  Interview by Rashida Moore.

So, tell me about yourself.
I started ballet in 1972 at the Houston Ballet Academy.  In the winter of 1972, Houston Ballet did its very first Nutcracker, I was in Houston Ballet’s very first Nutcracker.   I started at the age of seven and I’d never seen a Black ballerina.  But I didn’t know it.  You don’t know what you haven’t seen something until you’ve seen it.
Then I got to see Dance Theater of Harlem, which was at Jones Hall – my mother took me.  I was sitting there and she didn’t tell me what it was, and a black ballerina jumps out…then another one jumps out.  I turned to my mom and I said, “Mom, there’s a whole stage full of ‘em!”  That opened up a whole new world for me. 

And as a child moving into your teenage years?
I almost quit.  I wanted to quit when I was 9 and I wanted to quit when I was 11. 

I was really good at violin and I was not that good at ballet.  And I had to work really hard, I thought.  Actually, a lot of it came really easy.   Ben Stevenson came in ’76 – he taught class… I was 11.  And it was the first class I had that was fun, and hard, and challenging.  And he made me feel like there was nothing I couldn’t do.  Whatever it was, he explained it in a way that I could visualize it and I could feel it.  Dance chose me at that point.
Then, when I was 13 – this is the absolute turning point for me; we did a spring performance, and that year the spring performance was Alice in Wonderland.  I’d been the flamingo, I’d been the flower.  And, you know, out of any other characters, in any other fairy tale, this is the one fairy tale where it’s absolutely described that she is blonde with alabaster skin…blue eyes, blue dress, white apron, white sox, black shoes – you know exactly what she’s supposed to  look like.  Starting in the spring semester,  the cast list went up for Alice and everyone is listed by last name… I looked at the cast list and I thought, “Oh, they’re bringing in some chick named Anderson to do Alice.”  And everyone is cast as something except for me.  Everyone is looking at me like, you’re Alice!  I’m thinking, wait, how can I be Alice?  Ben says, “You get a fall (weave) and you go to rehearsals, that’s how.  I picked you to be Alice -this is a ballet dancer’s dance.  The only color in art is on a canvas.”  Girl, after that, it was all over!

Isn’t it wonderful that you learned the lesson that the color of your skin doesn’t have to confine you as an artist, or otherwise, at such an early age?
Yes.  My dad always said, be the absolute best you that you can be.  That’s what was taught to me as a student at Houston Ballet and at home.  Ben Stevenson pulled me to the side and told me that they are waiting for you to fail, so you have to work harder, unfortunately.   When you get out on that stage you’re going to have to be better than anybody else for them to even  think you’re good enough.  I had to work harder anyway because I’m my daddy’s daughter.  That was the best things he could have said.  And I worked my ass off and I became the Sugarplum Fairy once I came into the company.  We had this giant plum and, when it turned around, you could hear the gasps… oh my goodness, that person’s brown!  At the end of the show, we got a standing ovation and I’ve been the Sugarplum Fairy ever since – for 28 years, every year.  Ben was someone I trusted and this was not someone who ever betrayed me or steered me wrong…and he invested.  So, I was able to become the first African-American prima ballerina for a major ballet company.  It was just bizarre.

Let’s talk about your work with kids…
 When you work with kids, first of all, you’ve got to be honest.  That’s easy – just tell the truth.  But they decide the course that it’s going to go.  Now that I’ve been doing it for 30 years, I have my basics…this is what I want them to know…then listen to the beat.  Cut through the hard candy shell and be real with them.
Look, I’m from Third Ward Houston, my name is Lauren Anderson.  I’m from down the street… ‘round the corner.  I went through HISD.  If I can do this, you can do it. It’s about passion and working hard.  I talk to them about stuff like that, but they hear that a lot.  They don’t need to hear it, they need to see it, and they need to be able to touch it.  Ballet is not something that people think they can get close to.  I work in education and I realized a long time ago that what I’ve done is not who I am.  It has allowed me to become who I want to be.  I want to be this person who changes the world. Being a ballerina isn’t going to change the world, but teaching someone something and being an example does.

And that’s why you are a leader.
I may be the only example of something positive that can change a child’s thought or a child’s heart.  I also got into to education because of my child.  He’s a musician, just like his daddy.  He’s at Parker Elementary Magnet School for Music in HISD and I was concerned about his education.

It’s so easy to look at leaders, after they have found success, and say, “Well, they were born that way.”  We discount the journey and we think that they’ve just had success after success.
No.  I haven’t even been successful yet.  I cannot wait to find the point when I can really be successful.  What I find is that I enjoy teaching. I enjoy educating kids, whether it is dance or something else.
I love to see what I call the ‘Disney Effect’.  When the kids first get off the bus, especially the boys, knowing that they’re going to a dance class, you see these kids drag in not very interested.  But, they come in and start to have fun and enjoy themselves.  They come back with this magic in their eyes wanting to learn more.  I picked a little boy off of a bus who started off just this way and, after the first class, I saw something.  I pulled him out, recognizing talent, and now he’s in the Academy performing in his second Nutcracker.
I don’t have to change the entire world – just one little piece.  I see the things that are happening with young people and all the things that are going on.  What I would love to do is just know that I have made the world a better place.  And it’s not going to have anything to do with my dancing.  I think on the grand scheme of what this world needs to survive. 

As you became more of an expert in your field and younger dancers came into the company, were you able to show them then the ropes, nurture them, and be a leader as a mentor?
I did the best I could.  I look at some of the ways I did and think they were not very nice.  Like one of the principle dancers now, sheactually thanked me for this; we were on tour doing Don Quixote and we had all of these quick changes; the Costumers were doing all of these changes and were just trying to figure it out.  She complained to one of them, “Can you hurry up? I’m going to be late.”  And I had a quick change as a lead.  After the show I told her, “Don’t you ever talk like that to a dresser ever again.  You are no good unless the conductor is good, the orchestra is good, the corps is good, the dresser is good, the production’s good…it’s not just about you.  Check yourself – you are representing the Houston Ballet.”  I felt so bad about it but she needed that.  Someone said it to me when I was a smart-ass ballerina wanting to come in cocky.  It’s been 20 years and, recently, I saw her in the hallway and she said, “I want to thank you for telling me that ‘cause I see some of those kids now.”  So, now she gets to tell them.

What are some of the most significant personal challenges you’ve experienced and how have they affected your work?
Getting a divorce and being physically abused for two years.  How did it affect my work?  It made me a better dancer…I did not want to go home.  I would stay late and come early.  I think this was the biggest time of my growth.  Also, having my baby.  Every year has been significant.  I feel like I’ve lived two lifetimes in one lifetime already. Now my big thing is going to school.  I’m going to school for medical office, specializing in billing and coding.  I’m getting in, girl, while the getting is good… before everyone else does.  Everything is going to electronic medical records.  I’m going to start ABC Anderson Billing and Coding, start a virtual medical office, and hire some people coming out of school.  I’m going to start my own firm.

How do you think you’ll be able to translate the leadership skills you’ve learned as a dancer and an educator into an office space with your staff?
Being an educator has really helped.  Going to school for technology has really helped me to understand what’s needed to function in this world because, once you leave  the studio and stop being the talent, no one cares how high you can kick your leg.  They want to know what you can bring to the table and are you a leader.   Being an educator, I think I know how to correct people when they are out of line because I have to do it in the classroom all the whole time.  I have a lot of people to keep in line at the same time while I’m trying to accomplish a goal.

For a woman that has broken a huge barrier in the global performing arts field, Ms. Anderson says she is most proud of her roles as a mother and educator, despite the attention that has been paid to her dancing and having graced the stage of The Wortham Theater Center and other coveted stages across North America for so many years.   Ms. Anderson remains true to her humble beginnings and her hometown and says that her best years have just begun.    She is a true leader with a servant’s heart.