Sitting in a darkened theater at Jones Hall, 9-year-old Lauren Anderson did not know what show her mom had brought her to see until the first ballerina ran across the stage. Her eyes widened and she scooted up in her seat. She had never seen a ballerina who looked like her.
“That was a huge moment for me,” Anderson said of seeing the performance by Dance Theater of Harlem – a ballet company made up of many top Black ballerinas. “I saw myself. You know that thing – ‘when you see her, you can be her.’ I think you believe you can be her.”
Before that night, Anderson had been thinking about quitting ballet. Instead, in 1990, she became the first Black ballerina to be promoted to principal dancer at the Houston Ballet.
Anderson has roots in Harris County Commissioner Precinct 4. She graduated from Lamar High School in 1982 at the age of 17 – one year before joining Houston Ballet’s corps de ballet. Four years after joining the ballet full-time, she earned the title of soloist. Three years later, she became only the second Black female ballerina to ever be promoted to principal, the highest rank a ballerina can earn.
Throughout her career, Anderson has been lauded as “suburb” and “stunning.” Her costumes and final performance shoes now reside at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is a member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2022, Houston’s first Black Poet Laureate wrote a production about Anderson’s life, which was performed in Houston.
But she doesn’t want to be remembered solely as the first Black principal ballerina at the Houston Ballet, she said. She hopes to be remembered for the work she loves to do as the Houston Ballet’s Associate Director for Education and Community Engagement.
“When I really fight for what I'm passionate about, it can happen,” Anderson said. “So that puts me where I am today: Going to the legislature and advocating for students and arts education. That’s my jam. I’m in it to win it, and I will do whatever I can to bridge the gap between the community and the Houston Ballet, between legislature and children, and between parents, and realizing all that arts has to offer for kids.”
One of the many ways she is helping bridge those gaps is through the ballet’s programming. The ballet offers free full-length student matinees for schools throughout the greater Houston area and shortened sensory-friendly performances that are modified for neurodiverse audience members.
The ballet also has a program, Chance to Dance, which consists of eight free professional ballet classes. During the final class, Houston Ballet Academy staff give scholarships to select students that cover costs of one of their year-round programs.
“Just this past year, we have had our first Chance to Dance student get a job as a ballet dancer at Pittsburgh Ballet Theater,” Anderson said. “Is that not exciting? We give them all the tools: the résumé, the audition experience, the time to go and audition or bring people in to see them.”
Anderson and the Houston Ballet also share the art of ballet with students at hundreds of schools and community centers – including many in Harris County Precinct 4. From KIPP Sharpstown College Preparatory to Briargrove Elementary to Anderson’s own Lamar High School, the Houston Ballet aims to reach every school it can.
“I love my job,” Anderson said. “...I get to come into the office and sit down and figure out how many programs I can get into the community for free.”
Living Black History
In 2022, the Houston Ballet established the Lauren Anderson Young Dancer Scholarship Fund, which supports up to four underrepresented dancers in perpetuity. It was a full-circle moment for Anderson, who began at the Houston Ballet Academy on scholarship.
“I thought the coolest thing was to be choreographed on and have a ballet done for you and all of that,” Anderson said. “But to have your community invest in you with a giant monetary amount to set up a scholarship that will go in perpetuity is amazing.”
While Anderson has said that she does not view herself as a history-maker, she understands the power of being a “first” and the impact it can have on younger generations.
“When people think of Black history, they think of dead people,” Anderson said. “I'll never forget walking into an elementary school, and the teacher said, 'Lauren Anderson is going to be speaking today.’ And a little girl said, ‘She's alive!’ She'd done a report on me. Every person I did a Black History Month report on was dead. Now there's living Black history, and I think that's a cool thing.”
Photo Credit: Jim Caldwell (2005) Courtesy of Houston Ballet