Gabe Stone Shayer, a classically trained ballet dancer, doesn’t believe in wasting time.
As the pandemic continues to restrict many activities, Shayer — the first African American to graduate from the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow in its nearly 250-year history — has found ways to pursue and to highlight other interests in his life.
Among other things, Shayer is on a mission to share his perspective as a black dancer, redefine masculinity, and change the narrative around black men.
“I was born and raised in Philadelphia,” Shayer explains, “And when I grew up, I found the arts community here to be very vibrant and active, and so I was exposed to a lot of different things in the performing arts, which helped me later in life, but it was dance that definitely called me.
And it all worked perfectly for a little boy who used to dance around his grandmother, who was originally from Ghana, using her speech patterns as a sort of rhythmic backdrop.
“Later I became very interested in knowing more about my grandmother and our Ghanaian heritage, starting to gather information about Ghana and its people,” he says.
So, after doing some research and finding a school in Ghana that teaches ballet, Shayer reached out to the House of Fame Academy to find a way to share her talents and create a space for students to express themselves and seek their full potential.
Shayer, himself, had those same opportunities from an early age. His formal training began at age 11, and at age 14 he began full-time training as a scholarship student at the Rock School of Dance Education.
As she trained, Shayer won numerous awards, including the Clive Barnes Award for Dance.
Yet one of the things he cares most about is dispelling the notion of dance and the black man.
“I think there are so many stereotypes around black people. And, specifically, the stereotypes around black men in general are mostly negative,” Shayer says. “But as a black ballet dancer, I think some of the attributes I display, like elegance and grace, chivalry and discipline, are qualities that aren’t necessarily associated with black people and certainly not black men. But they are there.”
Now a soloist at the American Ballet Theater in New York, Shayer says he thinks there’s a huge deficit of black dancers in the ballet world and he’s committed to doing something about it.
“Now, being one of the few black dancers in a group of over 90 dancers at ABT – and the only black male soloist – I feel I have the knowledge as well as the responsibility to represent my culture and my community. “, Shayer volunteers.
“So today,” he concludes, “I hope I can debunk these stereotypes and this narrative that has been put on our people for so long. But it’s still a big fight for us to be seen under on the right day, sometimes being seen as a token for a ballet company, taking symbolic roles, not the leading role that all dancers want to portray.
“However, now that I’ve been promoted, I can play roles closer to who I am as a person and as an artist. And I feel honored to be someone who can help promote that in others of my race as well.