For Martin Luther King Day, we hear from an artist who makes civil rights heroes leap off the page.
Kojo For Kids welcomes Ashley Murphy-Wilson of The Washington Ballet to the show on Monday, January 4 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Ashley Murphy-Wilson was a musical kid who had a hard time sitting through piano lessons. And though she had a good voice, she was too shy to sing in public. Dance, which allowed her to move and respected her shyness, seemed a good fit.
She excelled at tap, hip hop and ballet, earning spots in prestigious summer programs with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and The Joffrey Ballet, and then a permanent place at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
This is Murphy-Wilson’s sixth season with The Washington Ballet. We’ll hear about her road to one of the nation’s most respected ballet companies, how she stays physically and mentally healthy in a competitive field, and her advice for aspiring young dancers.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Ashley Murphy-Wilson Dancer, The Washington Ballet; @twballet
KOJO NNAMDIWell, if you know about ballet, and even if you don't, you probably recognize this music, "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies." It's one of the highlights of the famous "Nutcracker Ballet," a winter holiday tradition everywhere, including in these parts. Our guest today was the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was Ballerina Ashley Murphy-Wilson's first principal role with the Washington Ballet, where she is in her sixth season.
KOJO NNAMDIThe pandemic has made it impossible to see the Nutcracker or Ashley Murphy-Wilson dance in person this year, but she's here to help us learn why ballet -- first performed hundreds of years ago -- is still popular around the world today, and we can still practice our plies. Ashley Murphy-Wilson, welcome to the program.
ASHLEY MURPHY-WILSONThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe are very happy to have you join us, but, of course, we only take calls from kids, only. So, if you're a kid, you can call now. Do you study ballet or another kind of dance? What do you like about it? 800-433-8850. Or if there's anything you would like to ask ballerina Ashley Murphy-Wilson, now would be the time to make that call: 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to Kojo@wamu.org, of you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask your question there, but only if you're a kid. Ashley, we want to talk about ballet, but before we do, tell us about when you were a kid. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
MURPHY-WILSONSo, I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. It's a little city in northwest Louisiana. And I started dancing at the age of three years old with Miss Carol England, who had a dance studio in the basement of a church downtown.
NNAMDII started dancing at the age of three, too, which is probably why I can't dance today. (laugh) But what did you like to do as a kid?
MURPHY-WILSONSo, as a kid, you know, I was a typical kid. I love playing in the yard. I had an awesome swing set that my dad put together that had monkey bars and swings and, you know, all the stuff that we like to use improperly. I just used to make obstacle courses instead of using the swings as they should. But I used to pretend, like, the floor was lava, like that new game.
NNAMDIYeah. Well, your mother took you to your first ballet when you were that same age, three years old. What did your three-year-old self think about it?
MURPHY-WILSONI think I enjoyed it from the moment I got in there, you know, just seeing all the other little kids in there with me and getting to wear a little tutu and my little ballet shoes, you know, the wrinkly leggings, because I didn't know how to pull them up yet. But, you know, I've always loved to dance, even before I actually took an official ballet class.
NNAMDIWell, you apparently started taking your official ballet classes also when you were three years old. Tell us about that.
MURPHY-WILSONYeah. So, my teacher, Miss Carol, used to actually start us with tap. And we would do 30 minutes of tap and 30 minutes of ballet, because she thought it was really important for, you know, learning musicality and stuff like that. So, tap was actually the very first thing I did, and then segued into ballet, where we started learning our, you know, positions of the feet and arms and, you know, our plies and things like that.
NNAMDIBut for everything I've read, you were a busy kid in all kinds of gymnastics and voice lessons, a very energetic kid. Why did you decide on dancing, to keep dancing instead of all of the other activities you were involved in?
MURPHY-WILSONSo, I realized from very early on that I was not going to play the piano. I just could not sit down. I wasn't one of those kids who could focus and sit down and concentrate on something like that. And I was too afraid to sing in public, so voice lessons kind of went out the window, as well. But I stuck with dance because it just gave me the freedom to be able to move and use my body to express myself where my voice wasn't always as useful. And it was the most challenging for me, because, you know, you have to be in a specific position. And, you know, there's a very specific type of movement and posture that you have to have and maintain to, you know, do ballet.
NNAMDIHere's nine-year-old Elliott in Washington, D.C. Elliott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELLIOTTHi. My name's Elliott, and my question is: How long did it take you to get used to wearing point shoes?
MURPHY-WILSONHow long did it get --
NNAMDI(overlapping) How long did it take for you to get used to point shoes?
MURPHY-WILSONOh, wow. So, I started point work at the age of about 11 or 12. And, honestly, I'm still getting used to it sometimes. (laugh) So, you know, it's very difficult work dancing on point. You have to make sure that your muscles and legs are always in good condition, that you're holding yourself up from your core and things like that, so you take a lot of pressure off your, you know, feet and legs. But, you know, as we train and get better, we practice every single day, and so, you know, it just takes years of solid practice to get used to dancing on point.
NNAMDIElliott, would you like to be a ballet dancer, at some point?
ELLIOTTI'm interested about taking ballet classes.
NNAMDIOh, great for you. Thank you very much for your call. You, too, can give us a call, if you're a kid, at 800-433-8850. Ashley Murphy-Wilson, tell us about the shoes ballet dancers wear. To be honest, they are very beautiful, but they don't look very supportive.
MURPHY-WILSONSo, we have some different types of footwear that we wear for ballet. So, we have what we call flat shoes or soft shoes, and that's the shoes that we normally start, you know, training with. But as we graduate to point shoes, these shoes are made of a layer of material and a layer of glue and used over and over again until they harden. But a lot of people have the misconception that the shoes are what's actually holding up the ballerina, when it's actually our strong muscles and the training that we have.
NNAMDIWe got an email from 11-year-old Sarah in D.C.: When did you know you wanted to be a dancer? Not just for fun, but to do it as a career?
MURPHY-WILSONI think it was when I first saw the Dance Theater of Harlem perform in my hometown of Shreveport my senior year of high school. So, I had never, with my own eyes, seen an African-American ballerina perform. And I just thought it was the most beautiful and amazing thing to see someone that looked like me doing these amazing things on the stage.
NNAMDIThat's fascinating. When you were invited to join the Dance Theater of Harlem, you were a teenager and desperately wanted to accept the invitation. But your parents apparently insisted that you go to college, instead. How did you and your parents resolve this?
MURPHY-WILSONOh, wow, this is an interesting story. So, I did not do a good job of convincing them, initially, so I actually went to Dillard University for two weeks. And I got all my books, I moved into my dorm room and, you know, I brought my point shoes and a little piece of dance floor. And I was practicing every day in my dorm, and I was calling home every day to say, you know, I still haven't forgotten about New York. I still haven't forgotten about going to New York. And after lots of persuasion from my family and friends and even my pastor from church, my family finally decided to let me go to New York. So, they came and picked me up from New Orleans, and the rest is history.
NNAMDIWhere did you stay in New York? You were a teenager.
MURPHY-WILSONRight. So, (laugh) luckily, I was able to find a roommate in one of the dancers that I was going to be working with. And we had a little apartment and we, you know, saved our little money. We ate Top Ramen a lot to pay our bills, but we were so dedicated to, you know, what we wanted to do. And we were so passionate about the work that we were going to get to do with the Dance Theater of Harlem and with Arthur Mitchell.
NNAMDII wanted to get back to point shoes for a second, because at what age did you get point shoes, and why is it important not to get them before you're ready for them?
MURPHY-WILSONRight. So, I think I started around the age of 11 or 12. And this is when, you know, the bones and the muscles have fully developed. And it's super-important for dancers not to get point shoes before that age, because you can seriously damage your ligaments and joints if you aren't able to use them properly.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you're a kid and you are interested in ballet. Are you a boy who dances ballet? What do you love about it? You can also send us a tweet at @kojoshow or email to Kojo@wamu.org. Ashley, what is your advice to young dancers who want to make dance a bigger part of their lives?
MURPHY-WILSONI think, you know, it's just super-important to find that passion. And whenever you have passion for something, it just, you know, exudes and emotes out of you. And so, in order to, you know, incorporate dance more into your life, just, you know, put on that music and dance like nobody's watching. Because, you know, joy comes with the things that we love and the passion that we have for it. So, I think you've just got to dance.
NNAMDIYou said dance like nobody's watching. Apparently, there was a point at which you were shy, but dancing seemed to have helped you to get rid of that. Because once you were performing you were, apparently, no longer shy, correct?
MURPHY-WILSONAbsolutely. Like I said before, you know, I was too afraid to sing in public, even though I was decent at it. But, you know, dance gave me that -- almost kind of like that superpower where I was able to go onstage and show myself without fear and without holding back.
NNAMDIBallet dancers often seem to have a certain body type, a very thin one, if you will. So, what do you say to kids who don't have what we think of as the typical ballet body?
MURPHY-WILSONI think it's so important that we teach ourselves that, you know, the body is the body. We were born with our bodies and a lot of people, you know, have certain body types because we were born that way. But that doesn't mean that you should take yourself out of something that you love to do. A body is a dancer's body. Any body that you have is a dancer's body.
NNAMDIThat's very cool. How about boys who love ballet? Why don't we see more of them? And what would you say to a boy who's interested in ballet but sees that most ballet classes are filled with girls?
MURPHY-WILSONThat's a really good question, Kojo. So, I actually married a male ballet dancer. And he would love to tell you that his favorite thing was being in a room full of girls. (laugh) So, I would say, you know, there's a big stigma against boys doing ballet. But I think, you know, it's one of the coolest things that you could possibly do.
NNAMDII'm glad you talked about the fact that you are married to a ballet dancer, because when you came here from the Dance Theater of Harlem, somebody else was invited to come. Tell us that story.
MURPHY-WILSONSo, about six years ago, I got an opportunity to audition for the Washington Ballet when Septime Weber was the artistic director. And during this class where I was auditioning for him, I had taken my then-boyfriend Samuel to take class with me. And after the class, to make a long story short, he basically offered us both a job, and we ended up moving to D.C. together.
NNAMDIYou and this guy named Samuel Wilson, correct?
NNAMDIAnd what happened after you moved to D.C. together?
MURPHY-WILSONSo, after we moved to D.C. together, we had been dancing with the Washington Ballet for about two years. And one day, during the Nutcracker season, he proposed on stage, in front of everybody. (laugh) He made a whole, like, you know, production out of it. He even got the production crew and everybody in on it, and I knew nothing about it. (laugh) It was awesome.
NNAMDIWow. Here is eight-year-old Iliana, in Washington. Iliana, it's your turn. Go ahead, please.
ILIANASo, my question is, what other roles in the Nutcracker do you play?
NNAMDIA bunch. (laugh) Go ahead, please, Ashley Murphy-Wilson.
MURPHY-WILSONA bunch is the correct answer. In addition to doing the Sugar Plum Fairy, I also perform the Dewdrop Fairy, which is in "The Waltz of the Flowers." I do -- in the Washington Ballet version it's called Anacostian, which is our version of "The Arabian Dance." I've done Spanish, I've done all the core roles. I've done party scene. I'm a party mother. I do the doll. (laugh) If you name it, I've probably done it. (laugh)
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Iliana. You, too, can give us a call if you're a kid, at 800-433-8850. Have you had to stop going to ballet class because of the coronavirus? How are you practicing at home? Let us know: 800-433-8850. Ashley, when you were a kid, when adults would ask you what you wanted to be when you grew up, you would often say a pediatrician, when you knew that, in fact, you wanted to be a dancer. How come you felt you needed to hide your true dream, and what's your advice to kids who do have a dream?
MURPHY-WILSONYeah, that's a great question. I think, as children, we always sometimes give the answers that we feel people want to hear. And I think, you know, a lot of us don't want to disappoint our parents or the people that are asking us the question, because we kind of have grown up knowing what the acceptable answers are. And especially growing up in the South where, you know, anything besides basketball or football was considered a hobby, not a career, you know.
MURPHY-WILSONYou know, we push our little boys down here to play football and basketball so they can go to the pros, but, you know, everything else is a hobby. And so, I think I kind of came up with this pediatrician thing, because that's what I felt everyone wanted to hear. You know, doctor, lawyer, doctor, lawyer. But I always knew that I wanted to be a dancer, and it took me a while to be able to voice that to my family. But...
NNAMDIWell, you spend 13 years with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Tell our listeners about that company. Why is it famous, and what made it such an important part of your life?
MURPHY-WILSONSo, the Dance Theater of Harlem is a historical company, because it was started by the first African-American male dancer from the New York City Ballet. And so, Mr. Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell, trained and danced under George Balanchine who, at the time, had started this company in New York City and was making, you know, all these great ballets, classical and neoclassical.
MURPHY-WILSONAnd after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mr. Mitchell decided that he wanted to bring, you know, dance back into his own community where he grew up. And so, in 1969, he started this school and this company, and he has worked -- you know, the mission of the Dance Theater of Harlem is to prove that African-American dancers can dance, and we do have the body types, and we have the same classical training and the same technique that anyone else has.
NNAMDIYeah. Many people say that the ballet world still has a long way to go before it truly embraces black dancers, choreographers and artistic directors. Do you feel, however, that progress is being made, and what do you think needs to change?
MURPHY-WILSONI absolutely think progress is being made and, you know, I also do agree that there's a long way to go, just because of the sheer history of the ballet technique. There are a lot of things that people want to keep in place because of the historical value of it, but that don't necessarily line up with equity and inclusion. And so, I think that's where we have to start going towards.
NNAMDIAt the Dance Theater of Harlem, you taught in a program called Dancing Through the Barriers. Can you tell us about that? What kind of barriers are we talking about?
MURPHY-WILSONSo, Dancing Through Barriers was a program that Mr. Mitchell started in order to bring the arts into the public school system in New York City. So, we would actually go into different schools and perform. No matter where, we would put up a dance floor and a bar in a cafeteria or a gym or anywhere just to be able to show kids that, you know, otherwise wouldn't have been able to have access to these types of programs, to show them the art of ballet and how important it is to be able to move and follow your dreams and your passions.
NNAMDIThough the Dance Theater of Harlem had been your dance home for a long time, you did decide, six years ago, to join the Washington Ballet. What made you accept that offer?
MURPHY-WILSONWell, I had...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Was it Septime? I know Septime can be very convincing. He's a friend and was a regular guest on this show, yes.
MURPHY-WILSONYes, he is very convincing, but...
NNAMDIHe convinced me once to play Frederick Douglas in the Nutcracker, but that's...
MURPHY-WILSONOh, my goodness. I would love to see that.
NNAMDI...that's a disaster I won't tell you about. (laugh)
MURPHY-WILSONOh, I would love you to come back when we get back on stage. That would be awesome. I think -- let me think. Can you repeat the question? I got so excited.
NNAMDIWhat persuaded you to come to the Washington Ballet?
MURPHY-WILSONOh, yes. So, with the Dance Theater of Harlem, we were a mostly touring company. And so, was starting to break down a little bit, if you will, my body, in particular. And I knew that at the Washington Ballet, they had a home at the Kennedy Center, where they performed large productions and things like that. So, that was a real interest to me. And also, after working with Mr. Mitchell for so long and him, you know, believing in me so much and saying, you know, you have the technique where you can dance anywhere. And so, I wanted to kind of put that to the test and, you know, bring my talent to another company didn't have as much diversity.
NNAMDIOh, cool. Well, we said that we take calls from kids only, but there are some people who are kids at heart. And sometimes we take calls from them, and that would include 76-year-old Rema in Bethesda, Maryland. Rema, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REMAYes. Thank you, Kojo, for having me to represent the geriatric group. And I also started dancing at three after seeing Swan Lake, but I wasn't the ballet-type of mover. I was athletic and I was extremely limber and strong, but in terms of I wanted more freedom. And so, I wanted one voice, that there are many kinds of dance, that if ballet isn't your style, it doesn't mean you can't dance. I became a modern dancer, very expressive, choreographing my own work, and then ultimately teaching for years and years.
REMAAnd dancing, as you said, kept me a kid at heart. And I still move. My doctor said I move like a 20-year old, that I'm very limber. I'm still very strong. I performed at Kennedy Center in a technical piece just a couple of years ago with a young company, not as, you know, an old, aging person but as the same role I was doing at 40.
REMAAnd -- yeah...
REMA...you know, it's really -- in terms...
NNAMDIRema, thank you very much for sharing your story with us. And it is particularly relevant, Ashley, because 13-year-old Karen asks you: How many more years will you be able to perform?
MURPHY-WILSONThat's a great question. I think with, you know, all the technology that we have with -- and information and knowledge that we have about the human body now, you know, dancers are having longer and longer careers, which I'm super-grateful for. Personally, I think, I have probably like five or six more years in me, if I'm doing good, you know. But I've also, you know, made strides to get my degree in the arts before I retire. And I actually just finished my last class. So, I'm excited about that.
NNAMDIKeeping that promise she made to her parents several years ago. You shared the cover of "Point" magazine with perhaps the most famous ballerina in the nation, Misty Copeland of the American Ballet Theater and dancer Ebony Williams. How important was that to you? What does that cover photo with three black women dancers arm-in-arm mean to you? We only have about a minute left.
MURPHY-WILSONOkay. Well, I just think it's just super-important for representation. I think it's super-iconic, and I've seen other younger dancers, you know, recreating those poses. And it just makes me so warm in my heart, and so it makes me feel like, you know, what I'm doing is making a difference.
NNAMDIAshley Murphy-Wilson is in her sixth season dancing with the Washington Ballet. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
MURPHY-WILSONThank you so much for having me. This was awesome.
NNAMDIOur segment on New Year's resolutions was produced by Ines Renique. And our Kojo for Kids segment was produced by Lauren Markoe. Coming up tomorrow, Washington, D.C. has many nicknames, but did you know it used to be called the City of Trees? Back in the 1800s, tens of thousands of trees were planted here, lending the city that moniker. So, does our region still live up to its old nickname? And what does the city's tree canopy look like today, compared to then? We'll find out tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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