“I’ve loved dancing forever” is something Audrey Malek says often. Sure, the dancer and studio company member at The Washington Ballet loves other things: photography and experimenting with makeup, to name a few. But the spark in her eye when she talks about her chosen medium, art form and career path of dance is so evident.
Malek’s dance story starts like many young kids’ introduction to the sport. Her parents placed her and her sister in dance classes growing up. Her sister stopped dancing but Malek continued, and her passion for dance grew alongside her talent, eventually leading her to ballet. The transition from casual childhood dancer to studio company member at one of the world’s preeminent ballet companies is not the norm, but Malek made it her reality after a revelation around her love of dance in her teens.
“I did take a few ballet classes, but they weren’t as structured as a classical ballet academy. Growing up, I really didn’t have that background until the first summer intensive I went to at 13 with Dance Theatre of Harlem. That was my first real sense of, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like to be in a ballet school, to train every day and put on pointe shoes.’ I’ve loved dancing forever, but that was my first sense of, ‘I think I want to be a dancer when I grow up.’”
Malek set her sights on making that dream come to fruition. She attended summer intensive classes every year and danced almost every day at her hometown studio. At 17, she attended the International Association of Blacks in Dance’s (IABD) first annual women of color ballet audition in Colorado.
“I remember at the end I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be so embarrassing if my number isn’t called for anybody.’ It was called by two different companies, but it’s not like they give you a contract right then and there. It was more of, ‘We like you and if you take a company class with us, a private audition or another audition, then you have a one up.’”
One of the companies that called on Malek was The Washington Ballet. During her senior year of high school, she auditioned for a summer program and got in with a scholarship. Malek decided to “go headfirst” into her training at The Washington Ballet, and aspired to join the company instead of going off to college.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I have a full scholarship to this summer intensive. I’m going to go there, work my butt off and get into the school.’ That was my plan. Not in a self-absorbed or cocky way, but in a motivational way, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make it.’”
Fast-forward to today, and Malek is a member of the studio company at The Washington Ballet. While she worked hard to develop her raw talent and techniques, she also pushed herself to develop another skill: confidence.
“When you’re shy and don’t have confidence, it shows in everything. I’m here for a reason. [The Washington Ballet] brought me here and promoted me. I’ve been in the studio company now for a couple of years. If I’m here, I better take advantage of that, put myself to good use and work hard. And who cares what other people think?”
This confidence she’s developed is well beyond her years, and something people spend their whole lives working toward. Malek says her director and teachers believing in her plays a huge role in the way she now believes in herself, too. On Instagram, she posts videos of herself dancing, doing makeup and posed in perfect form at different spots around the D.C. area. In all of these, Malek’s confidence is not only apparent, but contagious.
Malek’s also been using the strength of her voice and her platform to speak truth to the changes she wants to see in the dance world, especially when it comes to race.
“I think it’s going to be a long road,” she says of the improvements she’d like to see in the ballet world becoming a more accepting space. “But I guess it’s good that with social media, Black dancers, white dancers and all dancers can talk about [issues], which is a positive.”
Ballet is a competitive sport: a craft that relies on not just physical strength and ability but also grace. It’s an art from with a complicated mix of skills. The self-discipline and confidence that have driven Malek to success are no accident, so what drives her to master these elements?
“It’s being fearless, going for it and really pushing yourself to your limits. Even during this quarantine, it would be so easy for all of us to just sit down [and] watch TV – which I’ve been doing sometimes and that’s cool – but also, it’s important that I remember that I am a dancer and I’m not letting anything get in the way of that.”
Despite accomplishing so much since she attended the audition that catalyzed her career, Malek has even more high hopes set for herself – and the ballet world – that she strives to accomplish every day.
“The ballet community evolves the slowest, because they still incorporate so many traditional ballets and costumes with [only] pink tights and shoes,” she explains of the prevalent issue of ballet costumes and shoes using fair skin as the common color of costumes, and not reflecting the races and skin tones that make up modern dance companies.
Similarly, Malek recently used her platform to call out a ballerina for engaging in blackface in the hopes of spreading awareness that this is still something happening in ballets today.
As for advancing herself, Malek says, “I hope that I become a principal or at least a soloist in five years’ time. I believe that anything can happen. I’m going into my third year of being part of the studio company, and it’s really been an experience growing here. Even though the pandemic is happening, I can’t wait for all these opportunities to happen. I feel like I can really use this time to grow within myself and my priorities.”
The slowdown of the world at large, particularly in the performing arts, hasn’t slowed Malek at all. With her sights set on a bright future, Malek shows that honing your craft and cultivating your self-confidence can take you far – and adding sheer talent to the mix doesn’t hurt, either.
Keep up with Malek on Instagram @audgemalek and visit www.audreymalek.com. For more on The Washington Ballet and how to support them and their artists during the pandemic, visit www.washingtonballet.org or follow @thewashingtonballet on Instagram.
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