Dancers & Companies

Diversity Is the New Black

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.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Dancers & Companies
Never let it be said that The Cindies lack studio swag. Via Instagram @jamesbwhiteside

It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)

Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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