NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — There’s something almost magical about ballet. Maybe it’s the moves, the graceful dancers, or the alluring music that draws people in.
Whatever it is, it caused Lorraine Graves to fall in love with it decades ago.
“Once I started, it became my passion. I loved it. I loved everything about it. It was a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work, but I knew that I wanted to dance professionally,” she said.
10 On Your Side met Graves at one of the many classes she teaches locally. She wasn’t always the educator. She was at one time a little girl who was enraptured by dance after seeing the New York City’s “The Nutcracker” on television.
Graves, who grew up in Norfolk, says she would imitate what she saw on TV. But after her mother took her to a local youth dance performance — where she also imitated the other children –Graves’ mother signed her up.
“My mom said ‘Would you like to dance?’ And I said ‘Oh yes, mommy. Yes, mommy,'” she said.
Graves has been saying ‘yes’ ever since.
She enrolled at the Norfolk Civic Ballet around 9 years old. Graves says she was the first African American student admitted. She went on to get scholarships from the American School of Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet School.
Graves wanted to dance professionally, but her parents encouraged her to go to college first. So, she graduated from Indiana University — where she studied ballet.
After college, Graves finally got her chance to shine.
“I was able to fulfill my dream. I mean everyone doesn’t get to do that,” she said, adding it was made possible through the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Graves became principal dancer, Ballet Mistress, and stayed there for 17 years working under founder Arthur Mitchell.
“He pushed us to another level because it was said African Americans couldn’t do classical ballet. We dispelled that myth,” she said.
At the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Graves was able to travel the world and danced in front of a list of remarkable people.
“Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Princess Margaret of England, the King of Norway. We went to Russia. We went to Africa. I think I went to every continent but Antartica,” she said. “It was an amazing experience. The things you see in books, I acutally saw those. It really changed my life,” she said.
It was the career of a lifetime.
“I was able to fulfill my dream. I mean, everyone doesn’t get to do that,” she said.
But she wants people to follow their dreams. That’s why she’s giving back by teaching.
Graves travels across the country and teaches classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and other schools.
“Someone was generous to give to me. If they hadn’t taken that time to give to me, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” she said. “Giving back is what its all about.”
Graves also teaches locally. She’s been at Todd Rosenlieb Dance for about 15 years. She also teaches at the Governor’s School and Ballet Virginia.
She hopes that people can use her story as inspiration to keep going and following whatever passion burns in their heart.
“I met obstacles from the time I was little. I was told ‘You’re too tall. You’re too this. You’re too that.’ No meant yes to me. No meant that I was not going to let anyone tell me no,” Graves said.
That message is what she’s passing along to her students, who she says push her to be a better teacher.
“If you work hard and continue to follow your dreams, no one can stop you.”
Graves was honored by the Virginia Arts Festival in 2019. She says her family has always been supportive especially her mother, Mildred, who is 100 years old.
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