The CASSANDRA project (part II): Jarina Carvalho

In ancient Greek mythology Cassandra was cursed by the god of reason and logic, Apollo, to always speak the truth and never be believed. She represents intuition, and her myth reflects western society’s devaluation of divine feminine knowledge.

The CASSANDRA Project is intended as a space for Cassandras in our community to speak their truth. It’s a space for female-identifying myth-busters to speak out and up for women, LGBTQ, and other marginalized peoples. While there are many columns and blogs that focus on women whose success is defined by the patriarchal values of wealth, power and prestige within the system, this column is dedicated to celebrating women for just being, a political act in and of itself in today’s world. It is a space to share the ways in which female-identifying people have maintained their relationship to the divine feminine forces of intuition and creativity outside the status quo, and in spite of male dominated industries and patriarchal systems. 

This column is about, for and dedicated to all of the daughters of the witches you didn’t burn. 

Read part I of “The CASSANDRA Project: Jarina Carvalho” 

Still of Jarina Carvalho dancing. (Photo courtesy of: Jarina Carvalho)

CASSANDRA#3: Jarina Carvalho

A native of Brazil and American citizen since 2011, Jarina began training with Ballet Vera Bublitz. She moved to the US on full scholarship for the School of American Ballet in NYC, and began her professional career with Dance Theater of Harlem. She is the founder and owner of Live Oak Dance where she teaches professional ballet instruction in a flexible, friendly environment.

What is your feminist kill joy? The truth you speak up about that people don’t want to hear?

My mom was a feminist. However, in Brazil I have a brother who has the same body type as myself. He’s ten years younger and when we moved to a different city, he was lonely and struggling to make friends. I begged my mom to let him dance and take classes, and she would not budge. So, she was a feminist, but this whole idea of masculinity couldn’t be touched. It was very challenging for her.

I have had many revelations in the 14 years I have been a teacher. The reason I say revelations is because I have been close to these things for so long but couldn’t see them. 

Much is related to ballet training: how to find balance, to create better extensions, or follow your natural lines. All of that was paramount in my dance career, I did it every day, but I didn’t truly understand until I became a teacher. 

It appeared when my mind shifted from being focused on what I needed to achieve, to sharing what I know with others through teaching.

Most of my students at the studio are women and girls. They are happy and excited to be learning and I like to nurture that. However, when teaching older college students, for example, I observed an attitude shift. There is something that happens in the teenage years to women where they become less whiling to take chances and voice their opinion.  I observed college students who were cut off, shut down, and so aware if they say something embarrassing or ridiculous the world’s gonna come down on them. Something happens to women that really robs them of their essence, of who they truly are. 

I observed that they expressed themselves through their appearance. Risqué lace bras. Clothes that projected they were a rebel, etc.  

I don’t have a problem with that, but when I asked a question, the response did not match the outfit. Their appearance was very hyper sexual and disconnected to their own desires and intellect.

I constantly try to point this out when I observe it in students. I keep pointing it out. I push for my students to answer questions, articulate what they are feeling, speak up for who they really are. 

This self-image erasing starts around high school, and it’s really problematic. I think it’s cultural, but genetics could play a part in it. You have to keep pointing it out. 

Part of my mission here at the studio is not to have a single meek or mild person.

They can be reserved, but they learn to speak up for themselves. 


Where do you find discrimination toward women or marginalized people suffering from injustices in your life? What do you do?

I first came to the US to study at the School of American Ballet. The students would be friendly then cut you off. It was a very strange and toxic environment. The culture there was poison. 

So, going from that experience to Dance Theater of Harlem I felt very welcomed by everyone. I felt special. Kelly Saunders was just in town; she’s now their ballet master. Many times, I learned her roles and if I had a question about the part, she would take the time to explain. What principal ballerina does that? 

She was very kind. Everybody was.

Trying to change things here, in New Orleans, I have found it incredibly misogynistic and difficult. I have had jobs that were not friendly places for my opinions, for things that I wanted to say and change. I have had male bosses who were not interested, and that was very frustrating. I felt being a female was a disadvantage. If I was a guy I would have been respected more.

Now that I’m working in managerial positions, both as the Artistic Director of Live Oak Dance and Ballet Master at Marigny Opera Ballet, it’s not as pervasive. However, once in a while I work with someone that does not respect me or the work I have done to get where I am.  

There is also my accent. I do not speak perfect English. It causes me to question if they are looking down on me because of the way I sound, however most of the time I think it’s because I am a female…or the intersection of the two.


Jarina Carvalho with dancing students at Live Oak Dance. (Photo courtesy of: Jarina Carvalho)

There has been in the metoo movement much recent bad publicity about ballet and some big companies as perpetuating misogyny and rape culture. One article, in particular, quotes a dancer who is suing NYC Ballet, where she describes the horror of watching little girls in buns walk into class naive that they are entering this toxic culture. It was heartbreaking to read because I started ballet when I was two, and I loved it. It probably saved my life honestly because it put me in touch with my body. 

As an educator in this era how do you approach that with your students? Your students’ parents? What is the message?

I’m positive things are going to get better. There’s nothing wrong with ballet.

What’s wrong are people that misuse their power, and they need to be held accountable. 

There are people that create bad environments for others to work in. They may shower you in compliments, use manipulative tactics, but, in the end, will always do what is in their best interest. You are secondary, the environment is secondary, and dance becomes secondary too. Sometimes it’s not even sexual. It’s about control and manipulation. There’s no fixing those people.  

 I do worry. 

I would like to think that we are preparing our students to speak up if anything happens to them. I would like to think society has started to change enough that people know that some of these occurrences are not acceptable. Blaming victims creates a culture that allows people to behave badly and go unchecked. 

 I hold women accountable for each other as well. If we have not had an experience like that, it may be easy to dismiss a woman’s reaction as an overreaction; however, we need to be supportive of each other and listen to what each has gone through. Then, we need to speak up. How do we change? How do we make it safer for a younger generation if there is a culture of silence? This starts with women themselves. Peer to peer. 

That’s my world. I teach girls and women. If I haven’t made myself available to listen to them then I have done something wrong. If I haven’t pushed for them to fight for what they want and get stronger, then I haven’t done my job. 


There is this politics in ballet that can sometimes manifest in violence toward the body, which is also in a way contradictory to some of what is best about ballet and dance in general in that it makes you very aware and in tune with your body. How do you address this with your students?

You can tell when you work with someone with a body image problem that something is not quite right. It is hard to pinpoint if someone is taking out their moodiness or anger on their bodies or if the problem goes deeper. 

We do a summer intensive every year, and this year we added a confidence class. The teacher, Avery Scripter, had collected data about woman’s behaviors in modern society, and she shared the facts with our students. Afterwards, she set aside time for the girls to talk to her about their body issues. No judgment, her approach was very calm. Some of them told me that was their favorite class of the summer and that class has helped them a lot.  It was very nice to observe the whole thing and realize that as an educator I need to constantly find creative ways to help our students understand what their bodies are going through.


What inspired you to dance?

My parents took me to a dance studio when I was six. I was this shy, skinny person who was estranged to the world and someone told me I had the most amazing body for this. It empowered me.

My dance journey had a lot of ups and downs, but without it, I would probably be a very lost person.  My dance training and being in the studio every day helped me get my life together.


What is the source of your creativity? 

That changes. For a while I taught at places that did not ask me to create anything. It was very depressing. It was also around that time I had my son.  I needed a creative outlet. 

I opened these doors (Live Oak Dance) in 2015, and in the beginning that was truly the motivating force: cultivating space to be creative.

We did a recital this past May, and it was one of the best. For a studio recital I take classical ballet, so the students learn how to do it, but then reimagine a scenario where some of this choreography can exists. From magical forests to surreal worlds I like to make it more relatable to our people. 

My inspiration comes from knowing there is technique already there that is going to work and make everybody grow but will also be a fun experience. 

The piece this spring, Elementa, explored fire, earth, water, then air. I never thought of ending a show on a low note. I had the entire studio repeat this meditative movement for five minutes. It was like a tapestry. 

 That kind of project makes me itch. It also makes me very scared. How am I going to get everyone from the three-year old to the adults to dance together? Even the fear becomes motivating. 

It is very fulfilling when the purest thought becomes realized. 

I also get a lot of inspiration from my son. He is really cool. Walking to school every day we have these chats. Sometimes after our walk I start crying. That combination of our little routine everyday and our conversations I take great inspiration from.

What stands out as a particularly transformative moment for you in deepening your connection to your creative self?

The work. When you see the work materialize.

If I’m preparing for a show, I become obsessive, the show is not always how I envisioned, and sometimes it comes out better than my expectations. So, I have to learn, transform and grow with every project I dive in. When you are working with five-year olds, you are trying to make them look a certain way, I think it will never happen and then it does – that’s magic.


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