Theresa Ruth Howard danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and was a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance. She is the founder and curator of the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. She has taught at the American Dance Festival, Sarah Lawrence College, and was an artist in residence at Hollins University. She is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine and has written for Pointe, and the Source magazines as well as the Italian dance Magazine Expressions. Ms. Howard also teaches both Ballet and Contemporary dance internationally.
New York City Ballet has an image problem. Despite having the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, the company regularly comes under fire for its lack of diversity. A perception of overbearing whiteness has plagued the institution, often acting as a cultural barrier for prospective students and audiences.
Over the last three years, the company's School of American Ballet and its diversity team have been working to change this. Since NYCB preserves its Balanchine legacy by keeping everything in house—dancers are hired almost exclusively from SAB, where they are trained by former members of the company—the school is a logical place to start transforming its image. And it's working. Presently, the children's division and intermediate/advanced division boasts 44% and 29% students of color, respectively.
Finding the right person to take the mantle of a 40-year-old American dance institution is no easy feat. But when Dallas-native choreographer Bridget L. Moore agreed to succeed Dallas Black Dance Theatre's founding artistic director, Ann Williams, the company knew it was a perfect fit.
Hiplet is sweeping the nation. Between TedX, Refinery29, Desigual campaigns, Anna Wintour's #madeforher fundraiser and the plethora of morning show spots, the hybrid dance craze—known for its sassy runway-style walks on pointe and crab-like bent-knee jazzy chassés—has gone viral.
Hiplet is the brain child of Homer Hans Bryant, a former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal who, in 1981, founded Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (then called Bryant Ballet), aka the studio where young Sasha and Malia Obama studied before moving to the White House. Bryant started putting hip hop movement on pointe in 1994 with a piece he choreographed for his students, called The Rap Ballet. That evolved into what became hiplet (a portmanteau of hip hop and ballet), which is now a regular class at his school.
But his curious blend of hip hop sur la pointe has proven to be quite provocative. Some see the blending of the urban and European dance vernaculars as a positive by-product of the black ballerina movement. For me and many others, it sets our teeth on edge.
Janet Collins, Raven Wilkinson, Debra Austin, Nora Kimball, Misty Copeland, Francesca Hayward. All of these successful black ballet dancers have something in common: they skew toward the fairer end of the sepia spectrum.
Onstage, the duskiness of their complexions can be all but washed out, bleached by the lights. From the audience, they could present as a white girl back from a beachside vacation, or be perceived as Latina.
This observation is in no way meant to challenge these women's "blackness," or their talent. It's to highlight a long-overlooked fact that, historically, artistic directors have shown a predilection towards black ballerinas with lighter skin tones.
Misty Copeland in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT
Like other little girls, you fall in love with ballet in a dark theater, and lean over to your mother to ask, “Can I do that?" But then you step into a world where no one resembles you—not the receptionist, your teacher, your classmates or the people in the posters on the wall. You feel uneasy. The pink tights and shoes you wear for class bear no resemblance to your dark-colored legs. You would like to blend in, but your skin, your hair, your body make it impossible.
When you ask black dancers today about their experiences studying ballet, many are conflicted. Most loved learning the technique, but they found the world of sylphs and tutus daunting to navigate. Ballet is a rarefied career and its icon—a ballerina—is petite, lithe, fragile, ethereal and white. Some call it tradition, others call it the classical aesthetic. What it can feel like to black dancers is a commitment to whiteness.
It’s hard to talk about racial issues without sounding like an angry black woman. Though I have been accused of being black, I am not angry—annoyed maybe. Modern racial prejudice has been subtly refined to a degree that it can be inflicted without evidence, making it hard to prove, and often quite plausibly explained away. When you live on the darker side of the issue, if something’s not right you can feel it even though you can’t prove it—which may make you look paranoid, but doesn’t necessarily make you wrong.
For instance, it’s 2010 and though it bears the moniker of one of the most diverse cities on the planet, New York City Ballet still looks like an episode of Friends in tights and tutus. There’s something racially hinky about it, but I can’t prove it. It doesn’t come close to representing Balanchine’s original vision of creating an integrated company that was perhaps impossible in 1935, but today… A plausible reason for the whiteout is the inability to find a suitable black swan. Really? We can find a black man qualified to be the President of the United States but we can’t find a black woman to be a principal in NYCB?
Ballet has always been akin to the private country clubs of old, but modern dance is not without fault, either. For instance, back in the 1920s Ruth St. Denis admitted Edna Guy (“colored girl”) to her school and company, Denishawn, but permitted her to dance only at school performances. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company is the NYCB of modern dance. Where black men have been able to puncture the exclusionary membrane, their female counterparts have not; again, I can’t prove the why.… Two common excuses are that black dancers “aren’t interested in moving that way” or they don’t show up to auditions. There may be truth to the latter, but some folks don’t need a book to tell them “He’s just not that into you.” You start to learn where you are not wanted. It’s exhausting being a pioneer, sometimes you just want to dance, not be Sojourner Truth at an audition. It could come down to “You’re just not what we were looking for,” which could also mean “We aren’t looking for black people.” But you can’t prove that.
On the lighter side of the issue it could seem like excuses: Maybe black dancers aren’t making the cut or every “fierce” black dancer only wants to dance for Ailey (do we really think that?). Though an African American organization, Ailey is, and has almost always been, diverse both onstage and off. Oddly, dance organizations founded by non-whites historically have had a “curriculum of inclusion,” but it’s not just about headcount. If New York City Ballet were a corporation and not an arts organization, Peter Martins would have some ’splaining to do. Affirmative action is a slippery question in the arts.
True diversity is when a person’s differences are welcomed, desired, and integral to the environment such that their absence would diminish the product. Exhibit A: New York. So many different races and cultures in one place create a singular energy and flavor. That’s its beauty. We may get on each other’s nerves, but we all have to be here to make it magical. We have made progress, it’s inevitable when we are living the “browning of America.” But sometimes it’s not where you are but where you are not that speaks volumes. It’s a black thing, but I think you can understand.
Theresa Ruth Howard, who teaches at The Ailey School, has danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem and Karole Armitage.
Photo by Ken Kobiashi, courtesy Howard
Auditions end in one of two ways: Either the dancer gets the job, or she doesn’t. But the actual why is harder to pinpoint. A fierce technician might get cut right away; the fastest learner in the room might go home after round one. Getting hired often comes down to a delicate combination of what a dancer has to offer and what a director happens to be looking for—from technique to versatility, from attitude to the indescribable “it factor.” To find out what goes into that dancer/director alchemy, we talked to both sides. Here three dancers reflect on the fateful audition that got them hired, and their directors tell us what they saw.
The dancer: Odara N. Jabali-Nash of Philadanco
I didn’t pay much attention to artistic director Joan Myers Brown while I was auditioning. I remember her stating that she was looking for the “it factor” in a dancer, the thing that would set them apart from the rest. But I focused on what was being asked of me, and just hoped that she was seeing something in me. When I audition I never focus on the panel in the front. I stay in the zone and focus on getting the job.
The director: Joan Myers Brown
Odara attracted my attention with her aloofness. She was there to audition, and it was (and still is) all business, no foolishness. She was well-groomed, appropriately dressed, and well-trained. I remember thinking she was subdued—holding back—but we felt that we could pull something out of her.
The dancer: Stephanie Guilland-Brown, NYC dancer; formerly of Donald Byrd/The Group
Donald gives a good poker face. In hindsight, now that I know him so well and have seen how he focuses on the dancers he likes, I guess he did watch me quite a bit. But all I remember is hearing him say, ‘Use your through line.’ Up until that moment, I had never heard this—not at the ballet barre, not in the center of a jazz class. I felt so silly, but I used the opportunity to learn and apply the note. Having his company members there in the front of the room stressed me out, but it pushed me to really commit.
The director: Donald Byrd
At the time I was looking for a whole company of Ruthlyn Salomons. She was petite and waiflike and could really move. When Stephanie auditioned, she wasn’t what I thought I wanted—a short powerhouse. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. That was telling me something. At a certain point I had to rethink what my aesthetic was. I thought, I have to work with people who are interesting and who I am interested in. After the audition I couldn’t remember anyone but her.
The dancer: William Isaac of Armitage Gone! Dance
We began working on two phrases that were contemporary in style, and Karole Armitage was very pleased with my movement quality. But most importantly I was a tall man. She had seen other men, but most of them were on the shorter side. She explained to me the concept of her ballet, Time is the echo of an axe within a wood, and how it had all of these different styles from yoga to martial arts ballet, and modern, of course. Then she said “vogueing,” to which I said “I vogue.” I used to be part of the ballroom scene. Well, after that she offered me the job, so I guess all those years of vogueing in clubs paid off!
The director: Karole Armitage
I want each dancer to have a different flavor, so that the whole group is unique and full of spice. I want to see if they can break the habits of a lifetime of training and reconfigure the geometry of the shapes with a new approach. William could move in so many different ways, and that is exactly what the piece required. He just understood the movement and concept. I also needed a man who was a good partner both classically and contemporarily, and he was strong in both areas.
Photo of Odara N. Jabali-Nash of Philadanco by Lois Greenfield, courtesy Philadanco
When Christine Caimares came to me in tears about her weight, she was a student of mine in The Ailey School’s Junior Division. At 4'11" her Latina genes dealt her a healthy dose of breast and booty. The toxic cocktail of teen hormones and yo-yo dieting had caused her body to rebel. Her despair was palpable, and I could empathize. I found myself on the opposite side of a conversation I’d been having since I started looking more like FloJo and less like Gelsey.
After discussing diet and nutrition, we got to a hard fact: Sometimes it goes beyond diet and is a battle of genetics. “Christine,” I said, “you are never going to be tall or skinny. It’s just not in your makeup. If that’s your goal, you’ll always be miserable. Just work to be in the best shape that you can be in. You may never like the way you look, but you have to get to a place where you can accept and appreciate it.”
The dance world is riddled with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and head tripping. The conversation surrounding body image has long been a prejudicial one generally reserved for the “misfits” (short, fat, flat-footed, and bowlegged). In truth, whether full of figure or slight in frame, few in dance remain unscathed. Even the ideal body types have a lifetime subscription to body issues. There is almost no way to escape feelings of inadequacy when the majority of your time is spent in front of mirrors. The question is, Can those feelings be abated, or at least kept in check?
The female body is a persnickety thing, and puberty (especially spent in a leotard and tights) can be a breeding ground for disorders. Over a summer, a sticklike girl can blossom into a pinup, budding breasts and hips. Negotiating new assets can be daunting. Instead of supporting young dancers through these stages, teachers sometimes cross their fingers and bite their tongues, hoping things don’t go horribly awry, leaving students alone to navigate hostile terrain.
Maurya Kerr understands this intimately. Pencil-thin, with birdlike features and an enormous technical facility, Kerr was a frequent poster girl for Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet—she was the girl with the body other dancers coveted. It’s hard to imagine her having a negative image of herself, yet her experiences as a young dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Fort Worth Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater) wreaked havoc on her head. “It was odd to be this thin and have breasts—nobody else did,” she says. “I was self-conscious; it made me not want to eat.” This developed into a battle with anorexia that took a decade to overcome.
But there can be light at the end of the hormonal tunnel if you hold on. Caimares is a perfect example. Now a sophomore at CalArts (three years post said conversation) she is still short, but when she stopped “dieting” and instead started watching what she ate, her body began to come into balance. “I feel connected to my body now; it’s a conversation. I can tell when it’s not happy if I eat the wrong thing.” The connection has brought a level of contentment. “I still wish I could be tall and thin,” she admits. “But I love my muscle tone and my thighs, and I’m working on liking my arms.”
People don’t go willingly on a head-trip; it starts when someone gives you a ticket. You’re fine until someone tells you you’re not. The adjectives that teachers, directors, choreographers, and even critics use in reference to dancers make them the ticket agents working for that bus company. Their words can empower or destroy. Teachers can make a choice to be more responsible and compassionate in their communication with dancers (see “Teach-Learn Connection,” page 64). Case in point, a portion of Caimares’ newfound comfort is due to the acceptance she receives from the CalArts faculty. Kerr, currently on the faculty of the LINES Ballet/Dominican University BFA program, is open about her own struggles in an effort to support her students. “I let them know that everyone’s reality is different.”
Kelly Ann Barton, 20, is a standout at Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle. Her petite figure is at once zaftig and muscular. The earthy blend of power and sensitivity in her movement makes her utterly captivating—you can’t take your eyes off of her. But she probably thinks you’re looking at her divergent body type. Barton is learning to circumvent her insecurities about her body. “It’s a constant struggle,” she says flatly. “I just try to focus on the work.” Her artistic director, Donald Byrd, not only enjoys diversity, he revels in it. He is her greatest advocate, telling her, “You may have an issue with your body. I don’t. As long as you hit the step I don’t care if you fit into the confines of the conventional idea of a dancer.” Does knowing this help? “It was a relief, and it wasn’t,” Barton says. “It is a comfort to know that it’s a safe space.” But she’s still in her body and in her head.
It seems the more distance you have, the clearer your image of self. Talk to dancers who are older, retired, or injured, and the harsh judgments wane as a more realistic perception emerges. Looking back at pictures and video, they remark at how thin they were, gasp at how good they looked, and wonder what they were so worried about. Kerr is currently recovering from hip surgery, and found the distance from dance healing. “I have a new appreciation for it. It has taken me 20 years to get to the place where I can actually say I love my body.”
Caimares, though still quite young, has gained insight. “It seems like when you accept your body for what it is, you’ll see change.”
The relationship dancers have with their bodies requires constant work. Finding a way to appreciate oneself in the present would be ideal. The words of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer come to mind: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Ultimately there is no panacea for feeling good about oneself. Barton sums it up beautifully when she says, “You can’t hold on to emotional baggage when you are trying to reach artistry.” It might be unrealistic to wish that we as a community could stretch the concepts of beauty, honor ability over aesthetics, and realize the “perfect” body is a body that works, but it’s a worthwhile goal. Artistry comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms.
Theresa Ruth Howard is a faculty member at The Ailey School and a contributing writer for Dance Magazine.
Maurya Kerr three years ago when she was with LINES Ballet. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy LINES