John Welker became a professional dancer at age 16, and performed with Atlanta Ballet for more than two decades. He is a founding artist, artistic and executive director of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. He has a B.A. in dance and an M.B.A. from Kennesaw State University. He lives in Decatur with his wife, Christine, and their 7-year-old son, Lucas. (Photo by Felipe Barral)
Growing up in the inner city of Columbus, Ohio, I was exposed to a wide variety of people and cultures, and my parents were very intentional about hosting a revolving door of visitors from all over the world at our dinner table. My only experience with intolerance came from my eighth-grade soccer coach. After I told him I had to give up being team captain to pursue ballet more seriously, he assembled the entire team. He made me share my plans with them, ridiculed ballet in front of the group and humiliated me. It was a painful experience. But it fueled my competitive streak and taught me to never make another person feel the way my coach made me feel that day.
As a husband, father and artist, I am no stranger to reflection. But the Covid-19 crisis and killing of George Floyd has forced me to go deeper. Blatant acts of racism and hate seem to be amplified by our isolation. There is so much pain and emotional fatigue. It seems nothing has changed . . . yet so much has changed. And the heightened pitch and sense of urgency feels different — on a personal and societal level.
While talking recently to my 7-year-old son about racism and the importance of feeling comfortable in his own skin, it suddenly hit me that what amounted to a choice for me is a necessity for Black and Brown parents. They don’t have the luxury of not talking about bigotry, racism and the value of self-esteem with their children because the stakes are so much higher. Not only in terms of protecting the child’s physical safety and emotional well-being, but in preserving the child’s life.
We are all, in some way, re-examining our values. There is a mounting tension nationwide around a conflicting need to assert ourselves, our values and our experiences with a broader need to feel like we are part of a whole. Titles, positions, professional accolades, wealth and fame don’t seem to hold the same social currency they once did. There is so much cultural flux, it’s hard to make any sense of it all. By the same token, difficult conversations are being had. If I’ve learned anything from these past few months, it’s to trust that humility and faith in others will keep me learning and growing. And this gives me hope.
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