From Small-Town Texas to the Big Apple, Meet Harlem’s Prima Ballerina

indsey Croop's ballet shoes were laced tightly around her ankles. She waited behind the curtain of the Performing Arts Center in Lod, Israel, a town in the center of Middle Eastern country. The night's performance would be one of the few times that Lod's Arab and Jewish populations shared a space. Tension hung in the room. Then the James Brown kicked out the PA speakers and Croop took the stage.

"By the end, everyone was cheering. You could just tell the bond the audience had," Croop says. "They found that common ground, that basis of the human spirit."

The night confirmed a promise long held between Croop and dance, that the art of motion was truly capable of crumbling barriers. Over the course of her life as a ballet performer, Croop has seen this potential proven time and time again.

Croop now is the prima ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a company founded by Karel Shook and Arthur Mitchell, the second Black dancer with the New York City Ballet, in 1969, a time when Black ballet companies were sparse and under recognized.

Croop and the Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform for three nights at the Detroit Opera House from Feb. 12 to 14.


For nearly 40 years, the Dance Theatre of Harlem has challenged the classical ballet world by promoting dancers of color and injecting the art with the soul of American jazz, R&B, hip-hop — and don't forget the funk of the hardest working man in show business, Mr. Brown, the fellow that got Lod's diverse demographics on the good foot together. Maybe Croop's steps started them in that direction.

Before she was the prima ballerina of the company, Croop was growing up in a small, run-of-the-mill, conservative Texas town. It wasn't an easy place or time to be biracial; Croop's father is black and mother is white.

"I struggled with where I fit in growing up. I always wanted to fit in but I think feeling different, knowing different, and knowing people have different perceptions of you [is challenging]," Croop says. "I felt like skin color didn't really matter [with dance]. It was about the work and what I was doing. And, it gave me an outlet to express myself with whatever I was feeling."

Croop was only 11 when she started doing the kind of work that would turn most people's ankles into dust, going en pointe as it’s known in the ballet world. As a hungry, young performer, she chased the boundless feeling of dance throughout the states, training in Austin, Atlanta, Orlando, and further reaches.

The work paid off when she landed her first professional gig with the Nashville Ballet. There she found the same kind of transcendent energy that she felt early in her life as a ballerina and would later discover in front of the Israeli audience.

"[Nashville Ballet] opened my eyes to how dance can inspire children and touch people… and communicate life lessons through the art," Croop says. "It’s a mode of communication and it became more than something that I just did for fun."

Mobility came with the regional company and a quality of living that couldn't be found for dancers in large cities. Nashville offered Croop the kind of life she thought she wanted. But the comfort she found in Music City came with a tinge of stagnation though. For a person attuned to the electric qualities of ballet, Croop found herself wanting a bigger and more sharing stage for expression.

To find her new stride, Croop says she "learned to dream big and to just go for it." New York was the answer. She threw herself back into hard work.

Croop learned what Frank Sinatra meant when he called New York the city that never sleeps. She worked three jobs and lived in a studio apartment, picking up intermittent ballet gigs while finding her footing in a vast though supportive dance culture.

Around the same time as Croop’s move north, the Dance Theatre of Harlem found itself on an anemic recovery from $2.3 million of debt. The touring company had been shut down and this pillar of Black ballet seemed in its death throes.

With some fight, they turned away from the financial cliff and the Harlem-based ballet company began searching for a prima ballerina with not only talent and a diverse background but also a philosophy that declared dance could kick through any boundaries. The Dance Theatre of Harlem and Croop found each other in 2010 and by the next year, they were both back on the road.

"Ballet started in the French courts, so it was started as something that was meant for more affluent people," Croop says. "I think, in general, socio-economic standards in the U.S. perpetuate that."

She sees the turning of the old guard and embodies the resiliency to take part in that change.

"There are some harder realities but the love of dance and being able to put your art out there into the world everyday and is so much more rewarding," she says. "Ballet has given me so much."

See BLAC's calendar listing for more on the Dance Theater of Harlem's stop in Detroit, or visit Detroit Opera House and Michigan Opera Theatre's website here.

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