Photography by Richard Israel
Ayisha McMillan Cravotta spent most of her life traveling the globe soaring across stages. She was an elite ballerina and hoped to don her slippers forever. However, in 2005, McMillan Cravotta fell and severely injured her hip. Surgery fixed her body, but not her spirit. Suddenly, dancing lost its appeal. “I felt like there was more for me to do. I didn’t know what it was. But knew I had to find out.” In 2011, at age 33, the Illinois native became the first African-American principal of the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance where she manages teachers, plans curricula, works with staff , and counsels students. She also teaches in the studio occasionally. “My career has been very special. It’s a unique gift.”
Her love for ballet began as a toddler when her parents enrolled her in creative movement classes. By the time McMillan Cravotta was 9, she knew she wanted to dance professionally. At 13 she was enduring a rigorous schedule training seven days a week and spent weeks at a time away from her family, missing birthday parties and vacations. “It was tons of hard work,” she remembers. “But I knew I was dedicated to it even at that age.”
Her talent has taken her to stages in international hot spots, including London, Hong Kong, and Germany. It was a sexy but lonely life. More often than not McMillan Cravotta was the only African- American ballerina onstage. “It was hard for me to look at myself and think that I’m beautiful, I fit here, I belong here,” she says.
To stay inspired, McMillan kept pictures of well known black ballerinas Stephanie Dabney and Virginia Johnson on the mirror of her caboodle carrying case. “They looked so ethereal and beautiful,” she says. “I kept saying, ‘I think I can.’ That was what my little voice said. Those pictures provided me with dreams.” Whole New World At N.C. Dance Theatre, many of her directors were supportive. Before her injury, she was the first African-American ballerina to perform the lead role of Clara in The Nutcracker. “I hope that by being here and doing the best job that I can that I’ll attract more black families to bring their children here to study,” she says. “I hope to build a love for this art that has been so important in my life.”