Classically-trained ballet dancer Gabe Stone Shayer doesn't believe in wasting time.
So as the pandemic continues to curtail 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 highlight other interests in his life.
Among other things, Shayer is on a mission to share his perspective as a Black male dancer, redefine masculinity, and change the narrative around Black men.
“I was born and raised in Philly,” Shayer explains, “And when I was growing up I found the arts community here to be very lively and active, and so I was exposed to many different things in performance arts, all of which helped me later in life. But it was dance that definitely called to me.”
And it all worked perfectly for a little boy who used to dance around his grandmother, who was from Ghana, using her speech patterns as a sort of rhythmic backdrop.
“Later, I became very interested in learning 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 he could share his talents and create a space for students to express themselves and seek their full potential.
Shayer, himself, was given those same opportunities from a very young age. His formal training began at 11, and at 14 he began full-time training as a scholarship student at the Rock School of Dance Education.
As his training progressed, Shayer won many awards along the way, including the Clive Barnes Award for Dance.
Still, one of the things that remains closest to his heart, is dispelling the notion of dance and the Black male.
“I feel there are so many stereotypes surrounding Black people. And, most especially, the stereotypes surrounding Black men. in general, are mostly negative,” Shayer says. “But as a Black ballet dancer, I feel some of the attributes I display, like elegance and grace, and chivalry and discipline, are qualities not necessarily associated with Black people and certainly not Black men But they are there.”
Now a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City, Shayer says he feels there is a tremendous deficit of Black dancers in the world of ballet, and has his heart set on doing something about that.
“Now being one of only a handful of Black dancers in a field of some 90-plus 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 community,” Shayer volunteers.
“So today,” he concludes, “I hope I can debunk those stereotypes and that narrative that has been put upon our people for so long. But it's still a big struggle for us to be seen in the proper light, sometimes being viewed as a token for a ballet company, taking on token parts, and not the lead role 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.”