The ballet world is on an admirable mission to create more black ballet dancers. But former Dance Theatre of Harlem member Theresa Ruth Howard warns that schools need to consider the unique hurdles black students face.

Trainee and teacher Ashley Hannah Davis is one of many black role models at Ballet Memphis. Photo Louis Tucker, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

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.

Diversity has become the buzzword of the day: Ballet organizations across the country are creating initiatives to train black and brown children. But making a ballet dancer is a complex undertaking. Teaching the body is the easy part. Balancing the social, psychological and emotional realities of being a black student within a white environment takes some thought.

 It’s difficult to express how not seeing yourself represented in a world you want to inhabit affects your self-esteem. As one of a few black students, the specialness associated with you is usually not about your talent, but your otherness. It has been ingrained in you that you must not only be good, but be better to be considered equal. You carry the weight of your race on your back—every pirouette or arabesque represents your race’s collective potential to be professional ballet dancers. And like ice skating, tennis or golf, ballet is just not a thing that black people traditionally do; when you choose it, you become isolated both in that world and in your own community. If you are matriculating from an outreach program, you enter the studio with the scent of “disadvantaged” clinging to your skin, reminding you that you are poor, and black, and you should be grateful. You feel that your behavior is constantly under scrutiny, you are acutely aware of your deportment, and tone; nothing in you can resemble anything “ghetto.” If you come from a middle-class family, chances are your parents taught you the art of code switching and cultural neutrality: how to make sure that your speech and conduct are impeccable in front of white people. It is the way to blend in, to sound like them and share their interests. These are essential tools in assimilation and acceptability—without them, you are burdened with the full weight of the stigma of blackness.

Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Kiyon Gaines with 2015 Summer Course students. Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB.

The problem is, the schools trying to create black ballet dancers are too often unaware of how deeply these issues affect young students, and most don’t know how to address them. 

Most ballet companies have had some sort of outreach program since the 1990s, sending dancers into poor neighborhoods to teach children at public schools or rec centers. Yet by keeping these students separate, outreach programs never gave them a real chance to become dancers. Taking class in a gymnasium or cafeteria can’t replicate the gravity of entering a ballet studio, where there is ritual in the dress, a comportment to holding a barre. Brown v. Board of Education established that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal back in 1954; education in dance is no different.

Today’s initiatives imply a reach towards diversity. Both American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet are actively seeking diversity in their schools with hopes that it will change their companies. ABT’s Project Plié is the largest ballet diversity initiative in the country, linking with other ballet companies and Boys & Girls Clubs in an effort to identify talented dancers of color and provide them with training, support and scholarships. The strategy at School of American Ballet and NYCB includes expanding their audition locations to the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and, in Manhattan, Harlem and Chinatown. They have also assembled a committee of black, Asian and Latino alumni to provide valuable information about their experiences and mentor dancers of color.

It’s an admirable start. But you can’t help but notice that neither school has any black ballet faculty members (although ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School does have black modern instructors). Until organizations design programs that include black ballet teachers, mentoring, diversity training for faculty and staff, and take dancers’ psychological hurdles into consideration, the numbers of black dancers rising to the professional level will remain low.

Joan Myers Brown, who founded PHILADANCO to create more opportunities for the young black dancers at her school, has eagerly sent students with balletic potential to Pennsylvania Ballet for decades. “I just sent one a little while ago,” she says, “but she came back, saying she didn’t feel comfortable. I can send as many as I have, but if they don’t feel comfortable, they won’t stay.” You can blame the participants who drop out for not taking advantage of a great opportunity, but when their decision to leave becomes the norm, it’s time to reevaluate your own methodology.

“When I was training at Pennsylvania Ballet, I would still go take class at PHILADANCO with Aunt Joan so I had a support system,” says Andrea Long-Naidu who danced with New York City Ballet for eight years before becoming a principal with Dance Theatre of Harlem. “But when I went to SAB, I was alone and I started to lose the sense of who I was. I started to lose confidence.” This isolation often results in black students quitting before they advance to pre-professional levels. It’s similar to students from poorer backgrounds entering universities—statistics show that often they don’t make it to graduation not because of a lack of money, but rather an inability to overcome these psychological hurdles.

Conversely, the Figgins sisters are a perfect example of the difference that having teachers of color can make. “Training with Sandra Fortune-Green in DC, I was around black ballerinas all the time,” says Dionne, the eldest, who has danced in several Broadway productions, DTH and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Her sisters, Samantha and Jenelle, have danced with Complexions and Alvin Ailey, and DTH and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, respectively. “I never questioned that I could do it, because I saw others doing it,” Dionne says. “By the time I got to college, in a white environment, I was unshakable. Nobody could make me feel like I didn’t belong there. My sisters studied at Jones-Haywood Dance School, Dance Institute of Washington and Duke Ellington, and they had me and my peers as examples in the classical world.”

Organizations that want to diversify need to start by creating an environment that is color-friendly. Diversify your faculty, staff, administration, your board, your dancers—black-founded companies like DTH, Ailey, PHILADANCO and Dallas Black Dance Theatre have been integrated from early in their histories, even when telling their culturally specific stories. Get into conversations with the black dance community (not just the people you are comfortable with) to source honest information and find out what you don’t know. You can’t be afraid to engage with the people you want to diversify with. If ballet organizations are authentically endeavoring to build companies that reflect this country, they first need to understand what it feels like to be a black ballet dancer. 

Former dancer Theresa Ruth Howard recently launched MoBBallet.org for the Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet.