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Black ballerinas say protest shoot at Robert E. Lee statue changed their lives

A pair of teen Black ballerinas who were in a powerful photo in front of a Confederate statue spoke about how dancing showed they can "protest in different ways."
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/ Source: TODAY

Ava Holloway and Kennedy George had an underlying message beyond supporting the Black Lives Matter movement when the pair of teen Black ballerinas raised their fists in front of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee last month.

The 14-year-old friends also performed a dance at the controversial statue in Richmond, Virginia, before they posed for a powerful photo in front of the defaced monument that was captured by professional photographer Julia Rendleman.

The picture went viral and was shared by celebrities like John Legend and the Chicks amid protests around the world against racial injustice, but the ballerinas say it was about more than just supporting the movement.

"The message hidden in the pictures are just that you can protest in different ways," George said on the 3rd hour of TODAY. "You don't always have to be on the front line in all the rallies, but choosing your own art and expressing it through your gift is a great thing to do."

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The friends went to the site for a photo shoot with photographer Marcus Ingram because they had heard the monument was going to be taken down after an order issued by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in June. It remains standing following a lawsuit seeking to block the order, according to NBC12 in Richmond.

Holloway and George, who have been dancing together for more than 10 years, also wanted to represent ballerinas of color in an area of performative dance that is predominantly white.

"The reason I went to protest was to show that, yes, Black lives matter in the world, but also in the dance community where you definitely don't see a lot of them,'' George said.

"We kind of just thought of it as a historic moment that we needed to record,'' Holloway said. "It was just so empowering."

The girls also spoke about an issue that has become prominent among ballerinas of color. For years, Black dancers have been spending time and money painting traditional pink ballerina shoes brown to match their skin tone, in a process called "pancaking."

An online petition that received more than 300,000 signatures resulted in large ballet shoe makers Capezio and Bloch announcing they will be making brown pointe shoes and inclusive clothing. The teen ballerinas have firsthand experience with pancaking.

"We had to have skin tone pointe shoes," George said. "I had to go to the store and find a foundation to find my perfect skin color and I had to put it on in layers. You kind of question if you should be there, if you get the same chances as anybody else."

Brazilian-born professional ballerina Ingrid Silva of the Dance Theatre of Harlem highlighted the issue of pancaking on TODAY last year.

"It's part of my identity,'' Silva told Morgan Radford on Sunday TODAY. "It's part of who I am. It's part of who I represent. And it's the look of our company.

"But it's a process that I wish that, if the brands pushed a little bit on their research, we didn't have to (go through). Because it saves time. I could just wake up and put them on and dance, you know?"

In addition to enduring issues like pancaking, the two friends were inspired to speak out by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May and the ensuing protests.

"I normally don't speak up about stuff, but this moment right here, it definitely has started the activism even more and I'm definitely even more not afraid to say what I think," Holloway said. "These photos have definitely changed my life. We're activists in a way. We're young activists, which you don't see very often."

The girls now are creating their own nonprofit organization called Brown Ballerinas for Change.

"I think it's important to keep going because once you get this much recognition, it's a lot of stuff you can do with the power you have and not let this be like 15 minutes of fame or just a moment, but make this a movement and be a part of something bigger," George said.

"The thing with this generation is that we are really powerful. We are definitely taking this on very strong and headfirst, and we're not afraid of anything."