Circus Boss Spotlight: Darielle Williams
This week we launched our Circus Boss Spotlight!
For our first episode, Ileigh interviewed Darielle Williams, a breathtaking aerialist, dancer, and multi-talented circus artist.
Dari shares great advice for aspiring circus performers and shines a light on issues she faces as a Black Circus artist.
Please note, the interview transcribed below has minor edits for clarity and flow. The video has stunning images and videos of Dari performing, so be sure to check that our HERE.
Ileigh: Welcome Darielle Williams! For our viewers that don't know you, can you tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and give us some highlights from your circus career?
Dari: I'm most known for, being in Le Reve in Las Vegas, for going on tour with Beyonce, performing with Missy and J-Lo, and the little mermaid live last year.
Ileigh: Are there any myths about being a circus performer or circus professional that you'd like to debunk?
Dari: There's a myth that you have to be a vagabond to be a circus artist.
There's so many avenues you can have as a circus performer that you do not need to be a poor starving artist.
You can join a big fancy company, like Cirque du Soleil, or Seven Fingers, and get the concert stage type of experience. You can go on cruises. You can do dinner theaters in Europe. You can be a part of a circus company in Australia. You can start your own company. You can do some of the things I did, like work commercially for music artists.
I think when I first started, I was so naive and impressionable and just kind of following along with whatever people were doing and telling me to do, but I learned so much along the way. Circus has forced me to grow up, you know, forced me to mature in a good way.
I've had people actively not give me opportunities because they were afraid of what that might mean for them. Or they just didn't want me to succeed for whatever reason, and it took me a while to crawl out from under people and just start doing my own thing. Don't let other people's opinion define who you are, you know, just be who you want to be and then everything else will fall into place.
Ileigh: You recently shared with me some personal stories about experiences that you've had with clients that weren't interested in hiring you once they found out that you're black. And number one, that's outrageous and horrible. Are there thoughts that you can share with fellow performers or casting directors or event planners to help stop this type of racist bias, or how to respond if we see it?
Dari: When that happened, I found out by mistake, really. My friend left me in charge of her company and she was also booking me on the job. The client didn't realize that they were talking to the same person whose picture I had just sent. When they asked for a different girl, I point blank asked them, “is it because I'm black?” And they were like, “Well, we're sorry, it's just the client's preference.” Which is a familiar way that they like to phrase it--that it's a preference thing.
I mean, if I had to wait around for someone to prefer a black girl, I would only work for black clients, you know?
So just waiting for that approval, doesn't really lead to a lot of work. That was the first time that the blinders came off. I didn't realize that that happened all the time.
My friend told me it happened all the time, and also I just started seeing it all the time. Anytime someone would ask me for a job and I sent them pictures or video, we'd be in constant communication and suddenly I'm ghosted after I send them the material.
It came to a point where I just stopped sending them stuff, and I would start with “Just so you know, I'm black. So decide on that first.”
There's only so much you can do about unconscious bias. Sometimes the client wouldn't know I'm black. A company would hire me to go to an event, and I'd be so excited. I'd show up, and you can visibly see the disappointment in the client's face that I was the girl that came.
I told this to a different person, and she said for her company that she actively started hiring black performers. After hearing my story, she was so appalled by this. She said, “no one is going to tell her what color her performers are going to be.”
I think if the client really had a problem with it, you can just tell them.
This is the best person for the job. End of story.
Ileigh: Now that you've brought this to my attention, I want to be more aware of it and more supportive.
If I do see this happening, or as a performer, if you see things like this happening, how do we call it out? How do we bring it to other people's attention?
Dari: Yeah, it would be very difficult once you're already on a job--to bring that to the client's attention without causing some kind of rift. But, you know, I would put it on the director of the company to be bold enough to have that conversation with the clients.
That audiences can handle more than one race, whether you think so or not. It's 2020, soon to be 2021. We'll be fine.
Ileigh: You had mentioned going to auditions in LA. If they [casting directors and agents] were looking to cast a solo artist for a commercial, and they chose you, then that would be a bold choice because you’re a black aerialist. Can you just share some more about that experience?
Dari: It's sad, but that's genuinely how I feel when I walk into an audition. There's a part of me that's like, ah, they're not going to pick me. They only want one girl, why would they choose a black girl for this? You know, if they wanted like five girls, maybe I could be one of them, but for a solo role that means that client is going to have to use me as the face of their product for the commercial or the face of the poster for the show that has an aerialist in it. I honestly think that people in casting think about things like that and go, no.
I don't know if that would change anytime soon. It's just something that I am so self conscious about whenever I go to auditions. Hopefully some of the talks that we've been having, earlier this year with the whole revamp of the black lives matter movement will make some hearts and minds change.
I don't think people realize how difficult it is for black people to be represented in lead roles.
Ileigh: That's something I wanted to ask your opinion about because [in The Green Room] we're working on a value statement exercise to help circus performers and circus businesses create a value statement. A statement that also includes commitments to put those values into action. I recently just saw ABT [American Ballet Theatre] had an updated value statement that included actions that they're going to take to create diversity and representation.
I'm curious from you--what are the types of commitments that you'd like to see from the circus community in terms of addressing anti-black racism or lack of representation of black circus artists?
Dari: In terms of anti-black racism and representation of black artists and companies, I think
it's up to companies to actively seek out and recruit black performers.
When you audition, white is typically the default and recognizing that, it has to be a conscious decision to say, I want more people of color. I want 5%, 10%, 20%--come up with a number because if you don't actually try to do it, it won't happen.
You know what I mean? It's just very easy to go with what you know, and with what you're familiar with. We're humans, that's what we do. And if you don't actively try to look, seek that out, you're not going to achieve it.
Then once that is done, I think that more companies need more people of color in their boards. From the top, who's a part of running your company?
Even if it's a small company, and it's only owned by one or two people, who is your right-hand person? There must be somebody working right underneath you who takes charge, or somebody that you consult when you're coming up with themes, choreography, and show ideas.
Black people and people of color need to be in more of these decision-making positions, because it not only helps you cast more people of color, but it also helps you tell stories from different perspectives that you may not have had before. It helps the people of color who are hired feel like they have someone from the top who has their back.
Those artists of color get to tell their stories in a way that isn't insulting to a whole group of people. You know?
There's so many benefits to having people of color, not just in your cast, but also at the top.
Ileigh: And you touched on another one I've been thinking about for years, as a queer, woman married to another woman, so many roles in circus are hetero and binary--the man seduces the woman and they fall in love.
There's a show in Vegas that I went to where there was one moment where two women kissed. It was [presented] like the devil's Inferno, with red lights, and it was [presented] like this evil moment.
I sat in the audience, and I got mad. Why isn't that [two women together] the beautiful love story too?
With the racial reckoning of 2020, I've really been thinking about that [roles] as well. What about the skin color of the artists and what roles are they playing?
And obviously we see in Hollywood, they're trying to grapple with this and make changes. And I really look forward to seeing that in the circus world.
Dari: What you're talking about is how stories are told, or how people are represented. There again, there've been a lot of conversations about that this year as well.
And I just feel like it's time for circus to update and modernize a little bit.
I think the whole man-woman-love thing is just very traditional, and people don't want to offend anybody. But the more that this becomes a mainstay, the less of a big deal it would be--the less offensive it would be to anyone. You know what I mean?
If people just realize that love is love, skin is skin, and children grew up seeing all of the beauty and diversity, no one would be shocked suddenly when a Black person had a lead role or a girl was kissing a girl. That would just be normal, and art, and a reflection of actual life--
because this is what actual life looks like.
Ileigh: Absolutely! Let's do it. One thing I like to think of too, is as artists and as creators, if we don't like what we're seeing in the world, let's use the stage or the screen as a place to show and reflect what we'd like to see more of in the world.
Ileigh: Before we go, is there anything else that you'd like to share with our audience?
Dari: Well, do they know that I started with you?
Ileigh: Great point! Yes, I'll be sure to add some fun photos of you back in Animate Objects days.
Dari: Yes, let the people know I started with you, and now I'm being interviewed by you for my students showcase--full circle.
[Comment for readers from Ileigh: Animate Objects Physical Theater aka Animate Objects Productions was the Event Entertainment Production company we ran from 2006 - 2020 before starting Circus Boss. I had the honor of introducing Dari to aerial, stilts, and fire as her first Circus teacher! It's been amazing to watch her career flourish and this is a full circle moment for us, as she's producing a Virtual Aerial Showcase of her own students this weekend.]
Ileigh: Your show is this weekend? Right?
Dari: Yeah, I basically started teaching out of my backyard during the pandemic and just for fun, we wanted to throw an online show because what else are we doing right now? I'm really excited.
It's a small show. It's just six soloists, all aerial. We shot in my backyard with really great videographers and photographers. We went all out on that and lighting--we did the whole thing just to make it more real for ourselves.
It's December 5th through 7th, and it's basically a link that you would buy and you can watch it for 48 hours, and then it's gone.
Look out for that December 5th through the 7th, and you can get those tickets in the bio of my Instagram.
Ileigh: Where can we find you online Dari?
Ileigh: Well, I'm really looking forward to seeing all of your students and the fact that you can do an outdoor performance in December is awesome--in LA you can do outdoor performing a little bit longer than other places, right?
Dari: So true. We think it's cold, but it's really just in the 60’s.
Ileigh: Awesome. I love it. I love it. It's been such a joy to watch your career from our days together, way back in Miami. We look forward to seeing your show and seeing more from you, Dari, and seeing your fabulous career. Thank you.
Dari: Thank you, bye! 😘
Purchase tickets to Dari's Virtual Aerial Showcase here:
My biggest take-away from listening to Dari’s interview was the necessity of having specific, measurable goals and actions to promote anti-racism and increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. If our values aren’t aligned with action, then they are just words on paper.
Be sure to head on over to our Circus Boss YouTube channel to watch this episode HERE.
I hope you’ll walk away with a new perspective and commitment to create more diversity, equity, and inclusion in your circus communities and organizations.