As a young dancer in Brazil, Silva couldn’t find a role model who looked like her—so she became one.
This interview is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
Ingrid Silva is turning the stereotype of a ballerina body on its head. Here, the 29-year-old—who's currently in her sixth season at the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City—opens up about being the only black girl in her ballet class, forging her own career path, and why representation matters.
Did you always know you'd become a ballerina?
Growing up in Brazil, I wanted to be a swimmer so badly. I started ballet relatively late, when I was 8 years old, and I never saw myself dancing [long-term]. When I was 11, I went to one of the biggest dance schools in Brazil, and I met a teacher who sparked more of a love of dance in me. The challenges—and how every day I accomplished something different—were magnetizing for me. Ballet was taking up so much of my life, I decided to just invest in it.
At 17, you left Rio de Janeiro to study at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. What inspired you to go to New York?
I knew it was a great opportunity, but my mom was with me every step of the way, guiding me through it. I didn’t want to go. When you’re young and you get these opportunities, it’s hard to think as far ahead as the people around you. I did see a future for myself in dance. But I didn’t imagine it would get to where it is now. I would never dream of that.
What was it like to move so far from home?
When I first got here, I learned English, I learned the culture. I had to fight even more for the things that I wanted, especially being an international dancer. Just finding my space in myself and in the company, and growing as a woman and as a person, it was such a challenge. I could barely communicate, so I was lonely. I was sad. I wanted to go back for the first few days. But I always had my family’s support.
You’ve carved your own path in an industry known for its extremely strict standards—how did you do it?
People see ballerinas as a typical white, skinny, tall girl. It’s so much more than that. When I arrived at Dance Theatre of Harlem I felt very welcome. I felt like I found people who looked like me. I felt like I was where I belonged. In Brazil, there wasn’t much diversity. I was the only black ballerina in my class! And when I came to America, in this company, I was just one more.
Did that make you feel empowered to be yourself?
There are certain standards to dance that you have to follow—ballet is very specific, and you have to look formal, and you have to look a certain way. I think for me, it was more finding a way to look classical and elegant as a ballet dancer, but also look like me. I can still look classical and elegant with my natural hair. I can be classical and elegant with my own body. That was empowering.
Do you feel a responsibility to help other young dancers reach the same conclusion?
I mentor through an organization called Brown Girls Do Ballet. In my generation, I didn’t have anyone I could relate to and look up to. These girls can see me dance, or online, or in a magazine, and they see that it’s possible. And that’s where I think that representation matters. It’s not even about your body type, or your skin color. It’s about finding someone who inspires you. That’s my goal—to connect with people and help change their lives, even if it’s just through a conversation.
How do you deal with career hurdles these days?
I feel like the ballet career is going to be hard forever. You always want to be a better "you" every day. And you want to be perfect, which doesn’t exist. But one thing is important: to be consistent. And right now, I’m trying to be consistent more and more. That’s different than being perfect, because we’ll never be perfect.
What is your advice to for handling setbacks, and moments of self-doubt?
I remember that just because something doesn’t work one day, doesn’t mean it won’t work the next. And yes, you’re going to get frustrated, but personally, I started learning how to deal with my emotions. When I was young, when things wouldn’t go right in ballet, I would go home and cry. My dad once asked, “Why do you always get so upset? If it makes you so sad, why don’t you quit?” And the answer was that I could never see myself doing anything else. Growing up now, even when I get frustrated, I understand: Hey, it didn’t work today. You can do better tomorrow.