As long as there have been ballet companies in the United States, African-American boys and girls have been discouraged from having Sugar Plum Fairy fantasies and "Nutcracker" dreams.

They were told they weren't born with the right bodies to form the elegant lines required by classical dance.

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They were told that their race was too muscular, too athletic, and too curvy — code words for "too sexual" — for the sylphlike innocents celebrated in such ballets as "Giselle" and "Swan Lake."

They were told that America wasn't ready to see a dark brown woman cast as a white snowflake or swan. When black ballerinas executed routine steps correctly in class, they were over-praised to the point of insult. And they were expected to dust their face and limbs with a milk-colored powder when they performed certain roles.

Those stereotypes are being exploded in a big way in Baltimore, thanks to an exhibit opening this weekend and two coming visits by world-class troupes composed primarily of African-American dancers.

"I'd go to different dance classes and workshops, and usually I'd be the only black girl there," says Jacqueline Green, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts and a member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

"I never wanted to be a token or to be expected to represent my race. I just wanted to relax and be myself."

The exhibit and the visits come at a time when dance fans are increasingly beginning to ask why the multiracial, multicultural world they inhabit isn't reflected on stage.

This month, a Washington Ballet production of "Swan Lake" made national news. For the first time in the United States, a full-length version of the ballet featured two African-Americans in the lead roles. Misty Copeland performed the dual role of Odette/Odile, while Brooklyn Mack danced the role of Prince Siegfried –— a casting choice that, according to The New York Times, was "overdue" and resulted in "broken barriers."

The myth shattering locally began Saturday, when the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture opens an exhibition called "Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts" which explores the story of the famed troupe through costumes, set pieces and photographs.

In early May, the Ailey company — a modern troupe that draws heavily on ballet traditions and that includes at least one former ballerina — puts on three concerts at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. These performances will showcase the talents of Green along with fellow Maryland residents Elisa Clark, Daniel Harder and Alicia Graf Mack.

Then, on June 20, the Dance Theatre of Harlem appears at Morgan State University. The performance is co-sponsored by the Lewis Museum, and at least three of the dancers will be performing in front of a home audience: Free State natives Da'Von Doane, Keenan English and Anthony Javier Savoy.

If it seems that Maryland dancers are heavily represented in these troupes, that's due partly to Baltimore's School for the Arts, which has been teaching ballet technique to promising young dancers of all races since 1979. Both Green and English attended the high school.

"I visited there a few years ago, and I was very impressed with the quality of the training that they were offering," says Keith Saunders, the Dance Theatre's ballet master. "They produce excellent dancers."

When Green left the comforting melting pot that was her school and began attending summer workshops with major companies, she experienced culture shock. Where were all the beautiful black dancers she admired and emulated and did stretches with? Instead, she found herself surrounded by redheads and blondes.

She recalls: "The other students would tell me stories about the one other black dancer they knew who [was] really good and behaved well. They'd say, 'You're so good,' and I'd know they meant, '... for a black girl.'

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"It was coming from an innocent place. They hadn't known many African-Americans. But it made me feel funny."

That's a large reason Green decided to join the Ailey Company, which is about 80 percent black. And clearly, she's flourishing. Last year, she received an award for emerging artists from the Princess Grace Foundation. This year, she was chosen to be the dancer featured on the company poster advertising the Ailey company's two-week run at the Lincoln Center.

The poster shows Green in a black leather leotard, her rippling arms curved out in front of her, one leg shooting up on a diagonal that extends to forever. Who would dare say that this lithe, elegant and powerful woman is unsuited for classical dance?

To get a sense of just how rare black ballet dancers are, consider the two most prestigious ballet troupes in the United States: the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre, which have their pick of the top ballet talent in the nation. The NYCB has five African-Americans among its 94-member company, and the 92-member (including apprentices) ABT has even fewer.

In 2004, the Dance Theatre of Harlem shut down its main company for what was supposed to be a monthlong intermission while administrators figured out how to pay off $2.3 million in debt. The hiatus lasted eight years. According to an article in The New Yorker magazine in 2014, just one of the 44 seasoned dancers who found themselves suddenly unemployed was picked up by a major ballet company.

During that period, the troupe continued to tour its ensemble company of dancers in training. Saunders is the director of that group, so during the time when the main company wasn't performing, he became the Dance Theatre of Harlem's public face.

"Eight years is almost an entire generation in the life of a dancer," he says.

"We tried to keep the name and reputation of the company alive and in the public imagination. You have to be dogged and determined. There's a kind of relentlessness you must have if you are to survive and be successful."

One of the strengths of the exhibit at the Lewis Museum is that it makes its points about stereotypes subtly. Nowhere, does the word "racism" appear.

Instead, viewers can linger over the costumes for the company's production of "Creole Giselle" that were created after company founder Arthur Mitchell decided to transplant the ballet set in Germany during the Middle Ages to Louisiana in the 1840s. (By that time, Mitchell already had considerable barrier-breaking experience of his own. In 1955, he became the first African-American male to become a permanent member of the New York City Ballet.)

Or museum-goers can linger over the display case that contains three toe shoes dyed different shades of brown to match the skin tones of the company dancers.

That seemingly simple innovation caused ripples throughout the dance world because Mitchell was departing from a 300-year-old tradition. He wanted to see an unbroken line from his dancers' fingertips to their toes. Mitchell's dancers didn't have light pink tones in their skin, he reasoned, so why should they wear pink shoes?

Saunders was planning to discuss the troupe's history in greater detail at the exhibit opening. Other programming will include an Aug. 1 public conversation at the museum with Copeland, a soloist for the American Ballet Theatre. She has written candidly about the impact of race on her career, including her resentment at having had to apply white makeup to her face and limbs before some performances.

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In addition to the lectures, museum-goers can find out just how challenging dance can be by participating in movement classes ranging from hip-hop to ballet that will be held this spring and summer at the Lewis Museum.

But perhaps the most radical aspect of the exhibit is also the most playful. Part of the gallery has been cleared of breakable objects. A mirror has been hung on one wall, and a child-sized barre has been attached. A floor mat shows the museum's youngest visitors how to put their feet into the five ballet positions.

A few feet away, a sign urges all boys and girls with "Nutcracker" dreams to leap skyward again and again.

"How high," the sign asks, "can you jump?"

If you go

"Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts" runs through Aug. 30 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. $6-$8. Call 443-263-1800 or go to rflewismuseum.org.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre will perform at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 2 and 3 p.m. May 3 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. $37.50-$79.55. Call 410-547-7328 or go to lyricoperahouse.com. *(This show was canceled).

The Dance Theatre of Harlem will perform at 8 p.m. June 20 at *the Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. $28-$52. Call 443-885-4440 or go to murphyfineartscenter.org.

*This is an updated version of this story. The previous version incorrectly stated the phone number the Murphy Fine Arts Center, the ticket prices for the event and did not give its address.

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