What’s it like to become a part of history by being the subject of a popular photograph that made waves nationally?
Teenagers Ava Holloway, 15, and Kennedy George, 16, know because they were the two ballerinas photographed gracefully standing en pointe in front of the graffiti-covered Robert E. Lee statue on June 5, 2020, while protests still rocked Richmond. The image of the dancers with their right fists raised, reminiscent of the Black power salute, was taken by local photographer Julia Rendleman for Reuters and instantly blew up social media. Celebrities tweeted it, national publications did stories; it instantly became an iconic image of a moment in Virginia history.
Both strong students, Kennedy at Henrico Center for the Arts and Ava at St. Catherine’s School, the two young women immediately transformed their fame into an opportunity for others, creating a nonprofit called Brown Ballerinas for Change (BBFC) to provide dance scholarships for those who can’t afford to pursue the art, among several other education programs.
In honor of their own poised beauty and commitment to the art of dance, as well as the decision to use their sudden fame to help others, we’re honoring both these young women as part of Top 40 under 40 by conducting a longer Q&A allowing them space to express themselves in their own words.
Style Weekly: What do you remember most from the day of the photo?
Ava: My mom had taken photos of me the previous day at the monument in my pointe shoes and shorts. Those photos started to go viral from her Facebook page. A local photographer, Marcus Ingram, offered to take professional photos of me after seeing her pictures and we’d planned to meet him that morning. I’d also planned to take pictures with Kennedy, Shania, and Sophia later in the day, so Kennedy already had her clothes in her mom’s car. When we got there that morning, Kennedy just happened to be there taking her own individual pictures with her mom. This all started from a chance encounter.
We’ve been best friends since we were in preschool, so I invited her to join in my photos with Mr. Ingram and she quickly changed in the car. None of this was planned.
As we were taking photos, photojournalist Julia Rendleman walked up and introduced herself, and she asked if she could take a few pictures of us for Reuters. [Rendleman currently serves on their board of directors]. At this point, there were a lot of photographers asking if we could take pictures, community members asking if they could pose with us, someone asked us to hand out flowers, etc. We were there for probably three hours. By the time we left, our photo had already gone viral. We had no idea until we got home! Later that day, we went back with Shania and Sophia and took additional group photos. This was probably one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Kennedy: Ava always explains how everything came about that day best, but what I remember most about that day is the reaction of the crowd that was formed there. Everyone was asking to take photos of us and I remember feeling amazed by how inspired everyone was. There were a few negative comments made by people driving past but we stayed focused on the positive impact that was being made.
I remember this one breathtaking moment later that day when we took the group photo with Sophia [Chambliss], Shania [Gordon], and our dance instructor Miss Brandee [Green], where it started pouring down rain and everyone in the circle were hurrying to get under their tents and get somewhere dry, and we still were trying to get our perfect group picture, so we didn’t move. In tutus, pointe shoes, and makeup we all stayed and posed. My mom took those photos, and everybody knows and understands that you don’t mess up my mom’s photos [laughs]. I think that was a huge moment where all the guests at the monument that day noticed us. They saw us and just started clapping and cheering, so while we sacrificed a lot for the rain, the moment felt so empowering and like something out of a movie. I was literally standing on the monument, with my friends, teachers, and family, in pouring rain taking a photo that soon would go viral.
How has your life changed since the image went viral?
Ava: Tremendously. We founded BBFC with fellow dancers Sophia Chambliss and Shania Gordon shortly after we went viral. We wanted to create an opportunity for other Black and brown dancers to have access to ballet. Also, I’ve released a Black ballerina doll and published two books with my mom, “My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams” and “Remember Who You Are: An ABC Affirmation Coloring Book,” which comes out next month. And we’ve spoken to audiences all over the world on ways that you can encourage youth to promote change in your community. Through my books, I’ve been able to turn a moment into a movement through dance and literacy.
Kennedy:My life has changed tremendously since our photo went viral. We created a nonprofit organization, Brown Ballerinas for Change, that promotes diversity and inclusion in the arts and uses arts activism for social change. I think we’ve received a lot of positive feedback and amazing opportunities from that image. We had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with so many amazing artists and organizations. We’ve been blessed with interviews, television features, performance opportunities and just once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would’ve never occurred if not for the photo, so I’m extremely grateful. With all this incredible recognition comes power and we wanted to use that power to make this a movement not just a moment, and that’s how BBFC came to be.
Roughly how many people has BBFC been able to help to date with scholarships (or any other way)?
Ava: Last year we awarded scholarships to three high school seniors from the Richmond area. We plan to do the same this spring. We also started our own dance company through Brown Ballerinas for Change, where we provide tuition-free ballet classes and workshops for dancers ages 7-18. We have 20 company members ranging from beginning dancers to our Elite and Senior performing group.
Kennedy: We also created an ambassador program providing tuition-free dance classes to youth that is a mix of first time dancers and some experienced dancers in the Richmond community. We also plan to begin a summer program as well to be planted directly in a community that does not have access to dance classes.
And how do you go about raising money?
Ava: BBFC is a registered 501c3 organization. As such, we raise money through direct donations and through grants. Last year we received a grant from CultureWorks and several other organizations which were vital in our ability to launch our tuition-free programming.
Kennedy: Our board members assist in raising money through fundraising, grants, and individual donations. We also usually receive funds whenever we perform for events in the community.
Where do you feel like you (or BBFC) has had the most impact?
Ava: One of the most important aspects of BBFC is our advocacy at the state and local levels. I believe this is where we’ve been most impactful and it sets us apart from other dance spaces. For the past two years, I have served as a youth advocate during the General Assembly session through Virginia Voices for Children. Kennedy also served as a youth advocate this year.
In 2021, HJ 537 was introduced by former Delegate Lashrecse D. Aird. As a representative for BBFC, I spoke at the press conference with members of the Black Caucus to create awareness around the concept that racism is a public health crisis in Virginia. The resolution passed uncontested; making Virginia the first state in the South to recognize racism as a public health crisis through a declaration.
Kennedy: I think we’ve had the most impact just in the community in general, but more specifically in the youth that we meet. I know brown representation isn’t necessarily cherished in the ballet community as much as it should be, so for many of these young kids, and even adults, they have literally haven’t seen brown ballerinas before. To me that just goes to show how vital and beyond necessary this is and that we need to be the change that we want to see in the world. So when children see a ballerina that looks like them it’s inspiring and fresh to their little creative minds. There’s a saying that you can’t be what you can’t see and it shows them that they have a chance to be anything they want.
Has your experience with celebrity and being a voice for activism influenced what you want to do with your life/career?
Ava: Well, I’ve always wanted to go into a medical field, so that hasn’t changed, but I want to explore forensic science whereas before we went viral, I wanted to be a surgeon. There are many areas of forensic science that intersect with criminal justice and I believe my passion for advocacy and using my voice to uplift others is drawing me in that direction.
Kennedy: This is going to sound a little contradicting, but I am not a social media lover and actually have a pretty healthy fear of public speaking. I’ve always wanted to be a dancer; I’ve known that my entire life and as much as I appreciate the power and impact of activism, it wouldn’t be something I would consider me a expert in. I will always speak up for what I believe is right and speak for those who can’t, it’s just who I am. But to be completely honest, taking that on as a career would be extremely intimidating for me.
How did you get involved with Brown Girls Do Ballet in Texas?
Ava: Kennedy is an ambassador for BGDB. Prior to BBFC’s founding, designer and illustrator Alice X. Zhang adapted our photo into a charity art print, “Duality,” which can be purchased on her website. All proceeds from the print’s sales were donated to the Ava Holloway and Kennedy George Scholarship for Change, which we endowed through BGDB. Early on, we recognized the importance of providing space for other dancers and our partnership with BGDB made that possible on a global level.
Kennedy: I’ve been following Brown Girls Do Ballet since I was around 10 years old and last year I became a BGDB ambassador. When our photo went viral there was an outpouring of support; people just wanted to send us money in support and we hadn’t even thought of forming BBFC at that point. We loved the mission of BGDB and the opportunities that Ms. Takiyah [Wallace] was creating for Black and Brown dancers everywhere so we wanted to give back and contribute to her cause. Our parents helped to create the Ava Holloway and Kennedy George Scholarship for Change that was provided through BGDB. I love everything about BGDB and am proud to be an ambassador and continue to advocate for diversity in the dance world.
Is there a specific area of dance you think is still most in need of change?
Ava: There have been many positive changes happening in the world of dance. For example, the appointment of Janet Rollé as the CEO and Executive Director at American Ballet Theatre was huge. However, we still have a long way to go. I’d like to see more studios offer scholarships and sliding scales to make ballet more accessible to Black and brown dancers who may not otherwise have the opportunity to take classes. There are a lot of ways that studios can create a sense of belonging for Black and brown dancers by closely examining their proximity to diverse communities, reimagining their hiring and recruitment practices, exploring their attire and hair requirements, and examining their overall studio culture. There are lots of ways that systemic racism shows up in dance, but Black and brown dancers belong in ballet in dance studios, corps de ballet, and in the boardrooms where decisions are made.
Kennedy: I think everywhere! We can all always strive to be more accepting, inclusive, and diverse. It’s never a reached destination as a community, we can always be better and expand the horizons of what we are capable of. Any place that has a fixed mindset is an area that is in need of growth and the will to really listen.
What is the most important way each of you has personally grown?
Ava: This experience has been amazing! I don’t think we initially realized the power of our photo until Misty Copeland retweeted it. It’s been a humbling experience and it’s truly changed the trajectory of our lives. I believe that I have a more full understanding of my responsibility to use my voice to change the world. I have such an appreciation for the Black and brown dancers who shattered so many ceilings so that I could even have this opportunity. Through all that I do, I try to embody the spirit of Ubuntu—I am because we are, and since we are, I am complete. This experience helped to reaffirm that.
Kennedy: I think I’ve mastered the art of truly being myself and being confident in who I am, who I want to be, and the impact I want to have on the world. With the good that came from this picture, equally [there’s] just as much negativity, and being able to healthily handle both I think allowed me to grow as a person. I’ve also learned that no matter your skin, age, race, gender, or size, you will always be a role model to someone. You will inspire them and be their person to look up to, so I like to keep that in mind when going through everyday life. Integrity is huge, kindness always, and always fighting for what’s right.
To sum it up, be unapologetically you and don’t be afraid to take up space!