Brooklyn Mack has a dislocated toe. But you’d never know it. Always the Southern gentleman, Mack stands up when a lady enters the room and dashes off to get her a drink, never mentioning that he probably should be taking it a little easy.

During dress rehearsal for the Washington Ballet’s performance of Giselle, the classic ballet in which Mack starred last month, the 5-foot-10 former football player got stuck in his leather boots and skidded across the hardwood floor. He didn’t need the company’s physical trainer to tell him what was wrong. “I knew as soon as it happened.” What Mack also knew was that the show would undoubtedly go on. Borrowing a phrase from his fellow professional athletes, he’s “playing hurt.”

“It hurts like there’s no tomorrow,” said Mack with anything but a pained expression on his face. “Basically my best remedy for healing myself quickly is just assuming nothing’s wrong,” he explained. “If I do that my body heals itself a lot faster.”

Over risotto and lemonade, 27-year-old Mack continued to ignore the pain as he chats tirelessly about “obsessing” over dance as young kid and how being “a hard-headed stubborn Leo” led him all the way from Elgin, South Carolina to Varna, Bulgaria where in 2012 he won a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition, called the Olympics of ballet.

Another talking point he’ll never tire of? What it means to be a Black man in ballet.

EBONY: Tell me how you were first introduced to the ballet.

Brooklyn Mack: Every time there was a football tryout my mom would have some excuse as to why she couldn’t take me. Eventually I caught on and realized there must be some reason she didn’t want me playing football. So my school takes this field trip to see the ballet at a charity gala and, I mean, I really wasn’t too enthused. Everything I’d heard about ballet was that it was for girls, but every once in a while—very rarely though— I’d hear that it helped out with football. I couldn’t make heads or tails of that but when I saw the show I was floored immediately by the athleticism of the male dancers. I immediately gained some type of respect for it. And I saw an opportunity present itself. So I went home and told my mom that I’d be willing to take ballet lessons if she would finally take me to a football tryout. I saw ballet as kind of a bargaining chip. That’s where it started.

EBONY: So did you ever make it to that football tryout?

BM: Nope.

EBONY: What happened?

BM:My mom never took me and before I knew it I had become enamored with dance. Actually in the beginning it was more of an obsession than a love. But it definitely turned into something that I love.

EBONY: So you were “obsessed” with ballet? How so?

BM:Up to that point everything I did physically—whether it was soccer, basketball, tae kwon do—I always excelled. It was easy. So initially when I told my mom about this bargain, I thought I’d take ballet for maybe a month or two and then I’d become a master. But it wasn’t nothing like that! I was not inherently good at it. It was infinitely harder than I expected. So me being a hard-headed stubborn Leo—someone who thrives on challenge—that didn’t sit with me in the right way. So ballet definitely became an obsession, something to conquer.

EBONY: And after dancing professionally for a decade and winning the gold medal at Varna, do you think you’ve conquered it?

BM: Absolutely not. Of course I’ve accomplished many many things in this field. Dance has gone great for me. But art is searching for perfection and nobody’s perfect. It’s unattainable. There’s always something that can be done better, whether it’s artistically or technically. It’s a never-ending journey in that respect and I’m not satisfied yet.

EBONY: Diversity is still a major issue in ballet but do you ever get tired of talking about ballet’s race problem?

BM: Absolutely not. Let’s talk about it all the time! People can pretend all they want but race is still very much an issue. You’re either blind or in denial if you think it’s not. And there’s a reason that seeing an African American person or a dark skinned person on a ballet stage stands out. It’s  because you don’t see much of that. Still in a lot circles there’s a lot of idiotic misconceptions. You’d hear things like black people are anatomically not designed in a way that they can do ballet. Or black people can’t point their feet. Just stupid stuff still today. There’s less and less thank god, but still.

EBONY: As a Black ballet dancer, have you experienced discrimination in your career?

BM:Yeah a little bit. But like I said, I’m a stubborn Leo. I loved to be told I couldn’t do something. I just couldn’t wait for somebody to tell me that because I couldn’t wait to prove someone wrong. I always thrived on stuff like that. It was just added fuel to the fire, not that it didn’t hurt sometimes. But at the end of the day it was all timber and logs.

So it’s great to talk about diversity because unfortunately a lot of youth especially are so impressionable. Had I had a different family, a different mom and a different uncle I easily could have been crushed by those things that people say. I think it’s really important to talk about it, so. that young people can know there are no limits. Skin? Pigment? Seriously? That’s this deep [he pinches his fingers together]. Throughout history we’ve excelled at everything we’ve had a chance to do. That’s part of my goal. I want to shed as much light as possible.

EBONY: How do you give back to the community and spread the message of no limitations?

BM:I do outreach performances. There’s the ARC Theatre here in Southeast Washington and they have a great program. The Washington Ballet offers a lot of scholarships to underserved communities that I know would never see a ballet. And for me personally, I go home and work with schools in South Carolina. Every single year I also dance in the charity, the Life Chance Gala, that first got me interested in dance back home. I think it’s important, especially when you’re blessed, to give back and share as much as you can.

EBONY: What would you say are the blessings you’ve received from ballet?

BM: Performing. There’s nothing like it. There’s nothing like the feeling I get when I’m on stage. It’s a rush, it’s a high, it’s surreal. You get to transcend to somewhere else, some other consciousness. For me dance is spiritually enlightening and uplifting.

EBONY: And what are some of the trials of being a professional dancer?

BM: Um, I don’t make enough money [he laughs]. I mean I’m fortunate, I do all right, but in general that can be hard. Especially relative for all the work that you put into it, all the hours all the blood (literally), sweat (literally), and tears (literally) that you put into it, the monetary reward is so so below what it should be. If you look at people who do somewhat comparable things like other athletes, there’s a definite disparity there. It all has to do where society as a whole places its values. If something is important to a ton of people then that’s where the money is going to be.

EBONY: How do we go about making dance, the arts in general really, more of a priority?

BM: One of the problems with ballet is that it hasn’t been nearly as accessible as it should be. It’s definitely perceived that way and that has put a wall between the people and ballet. And it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, that’s fine, but because there’s that wall you can only wonder what’s on the other side.

EBONY: What do you say to someone who has never been to the ballet? How do you get them to go?

BM: I think that ballet, dance in general, really, is such an important thing. It’s not a coincidence that dance exists literally everywhere—and it has since the dawn of man. Music and dance. It’s something spiritual and really central to our soul and our humanity. There is absolutely without a doubt some ballet for everybody. A ballet they can relate to, cry to, laugh to, and get goose bumps to. Seeing dance and connecting in that way is really good for the soul. It can move you. It can take you places.