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.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
Two questions I'm often asked as an advocate for diversity in ballet are, "Do you think ballet organizations are genuine?" and, "Do you think it's changing?"
Quite honestly, there are times when I am not so certain. Then there are days when I get texts and Facebook messages alerting me to a story that reinforces my belief that ballet might just be shifting.
One such moment was in late November when Andrea Long-Naidu texted me the image of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Clara, Samrawit Saleem. There she was, seated on the floor in her party dress, gazing down lovingly at her Nutcracker with an elegant use of épaulement. Andrea called me, "Theresa, she's gorgeous, she's brown and look at her hair!!" She was referring to Saleem's double strand twists that were styled half-up half-down. My mouth was agape.
Points should be given to the dance world for beginning to address the issue of diversity. But have we ever taken into consideration who critiques dance—and the lack of diversity in that area of our community? Or how critics' subconscious biases create barriers to the elevation of non-white artists?
Recently, Charmian Wells wrote a scathing critical analysis of New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas' review of DanceAfrica. Entitled "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism" it took Kourlas to task for critiquing from a place of cultural and technical ignorance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, which performed at DanceAfrica. Photo via Facebook.
Reviews are part of the life blood of artistic sustainability—funders, agents, bookers and audience members use them as guides. Dance critics have a responsibility to the community to do, and be better, or at least have the courage to let the reader know what they don't understand.
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.