Ballet as an Outlet: A Jeté Toward a Better Life

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Jameel Ahmad Brown, 42, is serving his fourth term as Ballet Arkansas’ board president. Fundraising, recruiting and retaining, the Little Rock dermatopathologist is an ambassador for the organization. 

Brown brings new members onto the board and new performances onto the stage. He is an active fundraiser, whose insight provides the ballet with financial guidance and creative solutions. Beyond his responsibilities, Brown is personally invested in the wellbeing of the dancers, fighting for better working conditions and higher compensation.

Michael Fothergill, the artistic and executive director of the nonprofit, said that Brown has brought a fresh perspective to the ballet. His exciting ideas have pushed for a progressive dance company with a diverse repertoire, Fothergill said.

“Dr. Brown has done a great job advocating for the future of the ballet, rather than staying comfortable with where we’ve been in the past,” Fothergill said. “For our organization, he’s the best possible president we could have. He is invaluable.”

But why Ballet Arkansas

Brown dedicates endless hours to bettering this fine arts organization, because its mission promotes his saving grace. 

“Ballet is the reason I’m sitting here today,” Brown said. “It gave me an outlet.”

Though his sharp criticism of professional dance makes it hard for him to enjoy watching now, ballet was a channel through which Brown escaped his troubled home life as an adolescent.

“Ballet gave me permission to be someone else,” he said. “It was a form of escapism where I could be an artist and nothing more. I was allowed to be vulnerable, creative, submissive and regimented. This was in stark contrast to my real life where toughness ruled supreme.”

Brown grew up on the south side of Philadelphia with his sister and single mother, a high-school dropout with a drug addiction. He had no memory of the father who left when he was 4. His destitute, inner-city home was drowning in violence and dry of resources. His mother preferred getting high to paying bills, he said, so bi-annual eviction notices would push them to another neighborhood that lacked running water, electricity and air conditioning.

Brown entered the Philadelphia Public School System in 1981 as a violent 6 year old. After being pranked, he stabbed a classmate in the leg with a #2 pencil. This outburst changed his life, Brown said.

Brown at So Restaurant in Little Rock. He has been the Director of Pathology at Dermatology Group of Arkansas since 2011.

He was pulled from the general class and put into a program for kids with behavior disorders. Troublemakers had to choose two art forms through which to realign their undesirable energy. In addition to cello, Brown chose dance, thinking he would be grooving to ‘70s funk. 

Brown landed as the only boy in the ballet class. When he gave in to participating, Brown said he learned quickly, surpassing the girls. For the next three years, his physical and artistic talent in the dance realm bred celebration among his teachers and hostility among his peers.

“I was ostracized as a straight, male ballet dancer in the inner-city ghetto,” Brown said. “So, I learned to run really fast.” 

Brown at Zetêo Coffee in Downtown Little Rock near Ballet Arkansas. After he dropped out of third grade, the ballet teacher from his program would come to the homeless shelter to give him weekly lessons. Photo by Emily Franks.

Brown’s family became homeless at the age of eight. Three years and nine shelters later, they were on the street. His mother convinced an old family friend to let them live with her in North Philly. The next morning, his mother was gone. She never came back.

After the family friend became abusive, 11-year-old Brown and his sister walked back to South Philly and spent the next 18 months on the street eating out of dumpsters and using public restrooms. After reuniting with their mother, who was wearing the same clothes she had on the day she left, Brown’s family took a Greyhound bus to Kentucky to move in with an aunt. 

Having grown up in a concrete jungle, Brown remembers his aunt’s apartment, surrounded by greenery, feeling like an oasis. Louisville, however, didn’t prove to be Eden.

“I was angry, scared, resentful, desperate, hungry and filthy,” Brown said. “I had all of this baggage as a 13-year-old kid, and I was very mad.”

Even after missing fourth through seventh grade, Brown placed into eighth grade. Joining the school dance team induced violent attacks and accusations of homosexuality, but validation from adults gave him the strength to break the mold. 

Six months later, the aunt kicked them out. Brown remembers Louisville emergency housing feeling like the Ritz-Carlton. With central air and the first washing machine he had ever seen, it was the nicest place he had ever lived. 

He attended Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville his freshman, sophomore and junior year with a cello and dance concentration. His mother’s boyfriend told him, “you become who you are around,” so Brown looked around to see who was in the situation that he wanted to be in later. He befriended classmates who had family dinners, bed times and clean clothes. 

Brown hoped to end up like his dance teammate Chris Tobbe. He said he stole his desires to have a stable, supportive family life from watching Tobbe’s family. He also rid his thick, Philly vernacular by studying Tobbe’s diction and pronunciation, and then mouthing it back to retrain himself. 

Tobbe, who still works in Bullitt County as a landscaper, doesn’t remember the accent, but rather how purposeful Brown was with his words and facial expressions, on and off the stage.

“He always had a lot to say with his eyes and smile,” Tobbe said. “We were expected to display this while performing, but Jameel was expressive even off the stage.”

Tobbe remembers his fascination with Brown’s depth, which only proved genuine as he got to know him, he said.

Brown was keeping the electricity on with his weekly $250 from performing at Six Flags. When his mother stole his stash to buy drugs, Brown moved into his own apartment at age 15.

He graduated high school a year early and became the principal dancer at the University of Oklahoma on a full-ride ballet scholarship. While in a top three dance department, Brown doubled up his classes, earning his degree in two years. He performed on Carnival Cruise Lines before moving to New York City to work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1994. 

Brown dancing professionally for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with a female partner in 1994. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Brown.

Fulfilled but wanting more financial stability, Brown got his second undergraduate degree in applied physiology and biochemistry. After medical school and residency, Brown completed a dermatopathology fellowship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences under Dr. Bruce Smoller, who admired Brown’s perseverance to penetrate the highly-competitive field of dermatopathology.

“The odds were stacked heavily against him. But once again, he wasn’t interested in the odds,” Smoller said.

Brown joined Dermatology Group of Arkansas in 2011 as Director of Pathology, where he is today. The same year, he joined the board of Ballet Arkansas. Brown and Smoller are still great friends who bond over dermatopathology, political discussions and fine wine. 

He moved his sister and mother to Little Rock with him in hopes of giving them a better situation. In 2013, four days before he and his wife welcomed their daughter, Remington, his mother killed herself.

Brown capitalized on his physical and intellectual gifts to escape the streets, but he attributes his survival to his thirst for a better life.

“I had an innate drive to be different, to improve, to be better than my mother had been,” he said. “I applied my gifts with a Herculean effort. I was committed, blinders on; I must achieve. And to be honest with you, I haven’t changed.” 

Brown has come a long way from dumpster diving, but he wants to leave a legacy. He wants to raise a daughter who will better the world. He wants to leave a permanent gift legacy that benefits impoverished children. He wants to spread infectious love. But perhaps most of all, he wants to further the reach of ballet in Arkansas. 

Brown with his daughter, Remi, in Chicago on Father’s Day 2018. Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Brown.

Brown doesn’t dance anymore. It brings him pain that he’s not able to dance in the way he was able to 25 years ago.

“It’s too hard to see the abilities that I’ve lost, how I’ve aged,” he said. “I only feel shame when attempting.”

Even so, he remembers his ballet days with nostalgia, affection and appreciation, recognizing the power it had in his life and can have for others.

Citing his time in ballet as more valuable than his scholastic exposure, Brown wants every school to offer this art form to promote courage, compassion and community. 

“Without ballet, I would never have had the courage to try academically,” Brown said. “Dance felt more accessible.”

Fostering the fine arts is vital to bettering the community, so supporting Ballet Arkansas makes Little Rock a more desirable place to live, Brown said. Further, the arts breed empathy, bridging the gap of isolationism and xenophobia.

He uses the invaluable skill set he developed in ballet – work ethic, sensitivity, humility, interpretation, critical thinking, delayed gratification – every day in every interaction. This skill set has taken him from the streets of South Philly to the fulfilling, comfortable life he lives with his wife and daughter in Little Rock. 

“I am hungry for life,” Brown said. “I am hungry for information. I am hungry for love. I am hungry to make a change.”

Hunger, both physical and emotional, drives Brown.

“Because I have been physically hungry, I refuse to ever be physically hungry again. That’s been my journey.”