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Elgin native Brooklyn Mack follows his dreams

Posted: May 12, 2015 5:25 p.m.
Updated: May 13, 2015 1:00 a.m.
media4artists Theo Kossenas/The Washington Ballet Swan Lake

Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland of The Washington Ballet performing Swan Lake. They are the first African-American duo to dance the lead roles.

At first, Brooklyn Mack just wanted to play football, but his tendency to seek perfection would lead the Elgin native into the competitive world of international ballet.

In April, Mack was a part of the first duo of African-American dancers to perform the lead roles in Swan Lake with a major dance company. Before earning the role, Mack amassed other honors such as the senior gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in Varna Bulgaria (2012) and the 2011 Korean International Dance Competition’s Silver Medal.

Initially, Mack meant to use ballet as a “bargaining chip” to get his mom on board with the idea of him playing football.

He said he vaguely remembers hearing on television about professional football players taking ballet lessons to improve their game.

“She said that she would take me (to try out for football), but every time the time came around, she had some excuse for why she couldn’t take me. I realized that she didn’t want me playing football. I had to find a way to convince her. That’s where ballet made its unlikely entrance.” Mack said.

He began his dance career at the Pavlovich Dance School in Columbia under Radenko Pavlovich and Milena Leben.

Mack said he planned to give dancing a shot, “conquer” it, then keep playing football. His mom saw, however, her son was talented and asked for a scholarship for her son.

“He didn’t give scholarships to anybody but … they ended up giving me a scholarship and said that I would have to come in six days each week,” Mack said.

So, he practiced for six days a week with roughly one hour a day of training.

Mack’s friends took notice as dancing started to take up more and more of his time.

“The company shows and rehearsals started taking up an exorbitant amount of time. One day, my friend asked if I could come to play back yard football. I said, ‘I can’t, I have to go to dance rehearsal.’ He told me I was always going to dance rehearsal. I thought about it and realized this was really eating up all my time. I was at that point where I needed to make a decision,” Mack said.

He decided to go all in.

“I said I would give it a shot seriously and see where I could go with it. I ended up completely falling in love with it,” Mack said.

He received a scholarship to attend the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., and continued his climb to success in the world of dance. Being a male ballet dancer has never really bothered Mack. He admitted before he started dancing, he really didn’t know all ballet entailed.

“Obviously there is a stigma around ballet (for males) much more so back then than there is now. I was completely ignorant to what ballet was. I thought it was for girls -- you put your arms on top of your heads and stand on your toes,” Mack said.

“As far as other people’s perceptions of me, it’s something that’s always been somewhat secondary to my personality. I was always quite content doing me. Any time someone had something negative to say just in life, not necessarily with ballet, like -- you can’t do this, this is impossible. I always thrive on that sort of thing. I love to prove people wrong, assert my will and conquer things,” Mack said.

He said he only remembers one incident where he was teased for dancing. 

“Only one person ever teased me, a girl. But the next week, she asked me out,” he recalled.

The fact is, ballet requires intense physical training. Mack said the goal is to make the dance movements look effortless, which takes a lot of control.

“Ballet is complete and absolute control over your body. You have to be incredibly athletic.  You have to dance but make it look easy at the same time. And when you land, you have to land softly and quietly,” he said.

Mack puts in eight-hour days with the his current dance company, The Washington Ballet.

“It takes a lot. There are different exercises you do every single day for hours,” Mack said, adding he also trains outside of classes.

“Ballet is the pursuit of perfection. No one can be perfect but we try everyday to get a little bit closer. You have to devote extra time to that pursuit,” he said.

In April, Mack performed one of the lead roles in Swan Lake with Misty Copeland.

“What did make it a very historic and epic performance was that I was dancing alongside another African-American. That pairing was the first time that two African-Americans were the leads for Swan Lake in any major dance company,” Mack said. “I think it was very long overdue. I don’t think that I or Misty were the first African-American people who were capable of dancing these roles.”

Mack said he worked and trained very hard, so he wasn’t surprised when he was selected for the role. But, he was honored.

“I was humbled and honored to be a part of that, break down some barriers and hopefully bring about change and make that something that is not out of the ordinary. I hope that this is inspiration for everyone but especially for other minority youths who have never seen someone portraying these kinds of roles,” Mack said.

As for fellow dancers who hope to follow his footsteps, Mack recommended finding a great dance school then persevering.

“I’d say the most important thing in the ballet world, for anything that anyone is pursuing, is perseverance because it requires dedication, hard work and also love. Ballet is not something that you want to pursue professionally if you do not love it because it requires far too much sacrifice and pain. It definitely is something you have to love,” Mack said. “The sky’s the limit for anyone, no matter your background or where you come from. It’s attainable.”

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