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By Theresa Ruth Howard
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