When 14-year-old dancers Kennedy George and Ava Holloway heard that the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue was coming down, they knew they had to be there.
They headed out in their matching black ballerina skirts and pointe shoes for an impromptu photo session.
“We went to the monument to capture a joyous moment,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy and Ava have been dancing since they were 3 years old at the Central Virginia Dance Academy.
“Dance, for me, is like the better half of myself,” Kennedy said. “It’s like my alter ego. It helps express different parts of who I am.”
“I feel stronger, I feel graceful, I feel confident when I’m dancing,” Ava said.
With the backdrop of the Lee pedestal covered with graffiti behind them, Kennedy and Ava stood proudly on pointe, wearing black tutus and raising their fists in a symbol of strength.
Richmond freelance photographer Julia Rendleman, who shoots for The New York Times and other national publications, had been sent to the statue by the Reuters wire service to take pictures of the statue. She saw the girls dancing in front of it and started working.
Rendleman posted an image to her Instagram, then Reuters tweeted it. Suddenly, it was everywhere.
“It was huge on social media,” Kennedy said. She saw her picture popping up on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Then celebrities started posting and tweeting it — actress Reese Witherspoon, musician Courtney Love, musician Salt from the rap duo Salt-N-Pepa, and star ballerina Misty Copeland, just to name a few.
National publications such as Vanity Fair, Vogue and Marie Claire soon followed, running the photo with stories on the Confederate statues and Black Lives Matter.
“I didn’t expect this kind of reaction at all. We were shocked. We couldn’t believe it. It’s crazy to see that famous people have seen you,” Ava said. “It shows you don’t have to be silent in a time of need.”
Besides seeing strength and beauty in the photo, Ava sees underlying connections between the rigors of dance and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Pointe is one of the hardest types of dance. We’re going through one of the hardest years of our lives. If you connect those two things, there’s so much you can get from that,” Ava said. “Dance is such a supportive community. When you go out to the protests or statues, you see so much unity and people supporting each other, being united in the best way.”
The photo has struck a chord in Richmond and across the nation.
“It portrays something strong and uplifting in a time when a lot of the images made in the civil rights movement are hard to look at. I think people wanted something positive and hopeful,” Rendleman said.
“I truly believe that this was not coincidental and the world was meant to see our girls,” said Kennedy’s mother, Chris. “This picture exudes power and strength, and shows how dance brings art to chaos and creates something beautiful and empowering.”
But with the positive comes the negative. The girls said they’ve also received many hateful messages about the photo.
“We tried to warn them of what was going to come of it,” said Kennedy’s mother. “It’s a sensitive issue. We knew it would get some backlash. But they’re strong girls. They’ve taken it in stride.”
Besides being ballerinas, Kennedy is an International Baccalaureate student who is headed to the Henrico Center for the Arts next year. Ava is a straight-A student at St. Catherine’s School. Both girls are working on a nonprofit called Brown Ballerinas for Change to create dance scholarships for those who can’t afford it.
After the photo sparked such interest, they performed at the RVA Children’s Rally in front of the Maggie L. Walker statue — dancing on the cement sidewalk was difficult, they said — followed by a performance at the 5,000 Man March at the Lee statue.
“It was so great to see everyone come together. All ages and races,” Ava said. “It shows what we can accomplish. I think things will change for the better. This needed to happen for a while. People won’t take no for an answer. I hope everyone gets the equality they deserve.”