12/01/2013 09:33 am ET

Shannon Harkins, The Face Of African American Ballet Dancers' Struggle

The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Washington Ballet rehearsal studio is warm and humid from bodies in motion. Overhead lights reflect the sheen on the young dancers’ foreheads, and for the fourth time, Shannon Harkins and her fellow “Nutcracker” castmates have to start their routine again.

“Can you soft! Soft!” demands teacher Vladi­mir Djouloukhadze, demonstrating to the group the artistic, “flowy” hands the Chinese scene calls for — a nearly imperceptible difference from what the dancers had been doing. He runs over to Harkins. “Always keep this vertical,” he barks, straightening the umbrella she carries while she dances on point.

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