Birminghamian Kat Files doesn’t appreciate people side-eyeing Black creatives from the South.
It’s a problem 28-year-old Files has bumped into multiple times as a professional dancer, model, and actress in New York City. Her passion for the arts has guided her to many opportunities, like being accepted into to the prestigious Fordham University/Ailey School BFA program in 2011. While she was a student, she performed with dancers from the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater company and practiced with Misty Copeland. She’s now a contracted dancer at Eilsa Monte Dance.
But her success in the Big Apple doesn’t make her forget about home. Every summer since 2014, Files takes what she has learned from choreographers worldwide and teaches it to Birmingham’s youth through her nonprofit the F.I.L.E.S. (Future Inspired Leaders Exemplifying Success) Arts Project.
As part of Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series, Files talks about racism in the arts, how dance companies downplay southern talent and how young southerners are changing both issues.
While she enjoys strutting down the runways and twirling on New York City stages, Files said her work ethic, ambition and dedication has southern roots.
“Being from the South, we often underestimate our own talent just because it’s naturally what we do , but don’t sleep on your own talent,” Files said repeating advice from her mentors Germaul Barnes at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and Elisa Monte Dance’s Tiffany Rea-Fisher. “Don’t shut the door on yourself before you even have a chance to walk in the room. I think that is something I will take with me no matter where I go because being from the South is what makes me stronger.”
Files’ parents enrolled her in dance classes at age 4, but she didn’t see dance as a career path until she was accepted into the Alabama School of Fine Arts. In ninth grade, her talents caught the eyes of choreographers who selected her to dance for their pieces. She was often the youngest – and among the few Black – dancers on stage. To become more competitive, Files’ mother would take her to Atlanta to learn dance techniques that weren’t taught in Alabama.
When she came to New York, Files said she shocked many teachers and dancers who assumed southerners didn’t receive advance ballet or modern dance training. It’s a misconception Files and other southern dancers are still overcoming.
Of the 27 people in Files’ college graduating class, she can count on one hand the number of graduates who pursued professional dance careers. But most of those professionals are from the South. Files uses the doubt in her abilities to fuel her work.
“The moment I felt like someone was doubting me because of where I was from, it definitely kind of lit a fire in me to do better, grow, dream and dream even bigger,” Files said. “I wanted to prove to them that what they said meant nothing.”
Fighting southern stigmas isn’t the only hurdle Files has encountered. When ballet was first formed, a consensus emerged that the Black physique didn’t fit ballet’s style. Files said she has countless stories of teachers perpetuating these myths about black bodies. For example, Files recalls being told her foot didn’t point enough or, at 5-foot-9, she is too tall and should consider African or modern dance instead.
However, Black southern dancers are changing the racial tides in ballet, too. Florida native Calvin Royal III became the first Black man to become principal with the American Ballet Theater in more than two decades.
“Many well-known names are finally getting the recognition, but there is still room for growth,” Files said. “When you look at something and you say, ‘Oh, that looks fun.’ But then you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing it, it can kind of deter you from it. That is why I started the (F.I.L.E.S.) Arts Project.”
In a way, what is happening in ballet reflects what is happening in the South which has its own traditions rooted in racism. It gives Files mixed emotions at first. But she sees Confederate monument and symbols coming down and how the millennial, Gen X and Gen Z generations are creating pockets of progress across the South.
“I feel like our generation, and the generation above ours, is leading us in the right direction.” Files said. “The character of our region, I have extreme hope for that. I think that is where we are – a theme of character, morals and values. Having a more diverse conversation on all of those things is where we are heading, but we still have a ways to go because when you have so many of those areas rooted in tradition that people still do not want to change, it makes it hard.”
She’s encouraged by recent electoral changes, but is wary of the Black woman savior narrative.
“I got a message the other day saying, ‘Black women are going to save us all,’” Files said. “I teeter on smiling or frowning about it because, in a perfect world, no, it shouldn’t rely on Black women. But I do feel like Black women take it upon themselves to do what they have to do to change things.”
Files wants to change things through education. Hundreds of students – most of them Black – are introduced to dance and music styles during the F.I.L.E.S. Art Project’s rigorous summer workshops that Files didn’t learn unless she went out of state. This training can diversify the ranks of the arts both in the categories of race and regional representation.
Files said Black, southern youth need access to affordable training and performance opportunities. Her nonprofit provides both. Students just pay a $25 application fee; the rest of the program is free. About 70 percent of F.I.L.E.S’ students cannot afford to travel out of state to learn new techniques. The lack of affordable, high quality training can hinder diversity
“If our students could receive this type of training, they have a fighting chance. They are competitive when they walk through those doors during an audition,” Files said. “Natural talent and natural ability can get you very far, but when you need to know a technique in something that you need to train in for years, but you can’t afford it, it kind of holds you back.”
By investing in youth talent, Files is training future leaders and storytellers who – like her – will feel confident in their talents and southern–bred ambition.
“They can look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘I’m from Birmingham, Alabama. I know I am talented and gifted. I’m humble with it, but I’m going to bust down those doors and be in those rooms that I know I deserve to be in and worked hard to be in,” she said.
If you’re Black, under 30 and have something to say about the future of the South, email Reckon reporter Starr Dunigan at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach her via Twitter and Facebook. While you’re at it, consider joining the Black Magic Project Facebook group, where we talk about topics concerning Black, southern community and culture.