Diversity Is the New Black
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.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
To be honest, we never tire of watching non-dancers tackle a day in the life of the pros. From athletes to average Joes, these videos always give us a good laugh, and they remind the rest of the world that a whole lot of work goes into every dance performance you see. But often times, these dancer-for-a-day videos don't fully understand the importance of training (i.e., you can't just throw on a pair of pointe shoes and give it a go).
That's why we're especially loving this video by Refinery29 that actually gets it. Lucie Fink, host of the R29 YouTube series Lucie For Hire , got a private lesson from American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, and it was endlessly entertaining.
Who are you when you no longer do what you've been doing for years?
It is the big question facing anyone who retires. For top ballet dancers, however, the situation is more extreme. They start young, grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly see only each other, and become more and more removed from ordinary life. So what is it like to give this all up?
I asked seven former principal dancers from different generations at San Francisco Ballet, including myself, about this challenge.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.