For Maryann Payne, dance is more than performance art. It’s a way to promote diversity and acceptance.
A professional dancer and the star of the recently released short film Brown Ballerina, Payne is bringing a message of hope and encouragement to students at the Milagro Center in Delray Beach.
Like the character she plays in the film, who met with prejudice at every turn, Payne was often one of the only dancers of color in a studio when she was studying dance, especially in high school. Challenges abounded, even in simple things like finding tights that matched her skin tone. Her body differed from others in the classroom.
Instead of trapping her, those painful experiences emboldened the Delray Beach resident. With time, she learned to transform obstacles into motivation and strength, allowing her to launch a successful career. “In my life, those issues encouraged me to prove I’m capable no matter what my skin color is,” she says. “I do this because I love it. I want to encourage others to feel that too.”
Nicole Escalera, the cultural arts director at the Milagro Center, a nonprofit arts-integrated educational and cultural-arts facility that serves children from some of the area’s most disadvantaged populations, says Payne is swiftly achieving this goal. “She’s so involved with the community here. She’s always on; she’s truly excited about what she does and that serves as motivation for the children,” she says. “I don’t think many kids know someone like that. Most of them are not exposed to dance or the arts.”
A lithe and powerful dancer, Payne trained at Lulu Washington Dance Theatre in her native Los Angeles as well as Boynton Beach’s Southern Dance Theatre before attending Dreyfoos School of the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach and the New World School of the Arts in Miami Beach. The recipient of a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey Summer Intensive Program, she also trained at the iconic Dance Theatre of Harlem, an experience that helped dispel any lingering doubts she may have had about her own abilities.
Today, she is a majestic presence on stage and screen, patient in the face of prejudice. She performs with the traveling 6 o’Clock Dance Theater, based in Miami, and has been a featured dancer for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
According to Escalera, Payne infuses her students with self-esteem and encourages them to come out of their shells. “I have seen timid kids breaking out into a routine she taught them on the sidewalk to show me how hard they are working,” she says. “Around her, they walk taller and work harder.”
Harnessing her artistic passion along with her innate interpersonal skills, Payne seems determined to combat the exclusivity of the ballet world and the kind of negative feedback she received as a student. “I remember in school, one guest choreographer asked our teacher if my partner would struggle with my body type – my hips, my thighs. It made me insecure about my body. I pushed myself for a while and I restricted my diet.”
She wants students – of any and every color – to find the joy she has known in dance. “I tell my dancers, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. Don’t try to please someone else,” she says. “Focus on the dancing.”
Payne also wants educators and artists to understand the impact of their work and words. “There’s beauty in many different things,” she says simply.
Eventually, Payne, who also teaches at the George Washington Carver Middle School in Coral Gables, hopes to audition for Broadway. For now, she’s invigorated by her students and the dynamic arts scene in Palm Beach County.
“The dance community here is growing steadily,” she says. “The mix of different genres and artists adds to the color of the scene here. I love reaching out to the community, teaching about and with brown dancers – and the collaboration that follows. That aspect of our South Florida community is unique and hard to find elsewhere.”