Dancers Trending

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.

Show Comments ()
News
Keone and Mari Madrid. Photo by Carlo Aranda, Courtesy Matt Ross Public Relations

Keone and Mari Madrid are hardly strangers to the spotlight. Together, the powerhouse partners have performed in a Justin Bieber music video and on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and have choreographed for "So You Think You Can Dance." With around 250,000 subscribers, you could say Keone and Mari are "YouTube famous," but, thanks in part to a successful stint on NBC's "World of Dance" last year, they've become much more than that. Case in point: They're currently co-creating, choreographing and starring in their first full-length production, Beyond Babel. The immersive show will debut in San Diego this month; Keone and Mari hope to eventually take it on tour.

Keep reading... Show less
In Memoriam
Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams in George Balanchine's Agon. Photo courtesy DM Archives

Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell passed away today in a Manhattan hospital. He was 84 years old.

Mitchell originated the role of Puck in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Oleaga Photography, Courtesy DM Archives

As a leading dancer with NYCB in the 1950s and '60s, Mitchell became indelibly associated with two roles created on him by George Balanchine: the central pas de deux in Agon (1957) and Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1962). Mitchell's performance of the athletic, entwining Agon pas de deux with Diana Adams—a white woman—caused a major stir during a moment in which America was rife with racial tension.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Whole-body cryotherapy rapidly drops the skin temperature to speed up recovery. Photo courtesy CryoUSA

Dancers are known for going to great lengths to prepare their bodies to perform at their best. But the latest recovery trend that dancers—and star athletes from Kobe Bryant to Floyd Mayweather Jr.—are using is perhaps the most extreme treatment yet.

Whole-body cryotherapy (as opposed to other forms of cryotherapy, such as an ice bath or an ice pack) is said to significantly speed up recovery time by immersing the body in a chamber of very cold air. Once only available in fancy professional sports locker rooms, there are now over 700 whole-body cryotherapy locations across the country.

Keep reading... Show less
News
David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT

Tucked into a recent article in The New York Times about an upcoming schedule-change at the Metropolitan Opera, was a small bombshell: To accommodate the opera's plans, American Ballet Theatre, with whom it shares the house, will "reduce its Met season to five weeks from the current eight" starting in 2021. The news was dropped casually, practically as an aside.

Maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise. No regular ABT attendee can have failed to notice that, in recent seasons, there have been performances that were significantly under-sold. This happened even in the case of enduringly popular works like Giselle. Only Misty Copeland or the occasional visitor—Natalia Osipova, say—can fill that cavernous, almost 4,000-seat monolith.

(To be fair, the opera has the same problem; in May of 2017 it was reported to have attained only 67% of potential box office receipts.)

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Staring down the audience can be a powerful choice when appropriate. Photo by Soho Images, "Nebula" choreographed by Maria Konrad courtesy Next Generation Dance

The most compelling dancers don't just have amazing technique. They also use their focus to draw in the audience and make their performance captivating. Be more confident and engaging onstage by avoiding these mistakes:

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joe Lanteri teaching at Steps in the early 2000s

The iconic New York City dance studio Steps on Broadway has a new leader coming on board: Joe Lanteri. The New York City Dance Alliance founder will be Steps' new co-owner and executive director.

"For me, it's a big full circle," says Lanteri, who used to take class at Steps when he first moved to New York City, and started teaching there in the mid-1980s. The 4:30 p.m. Tuesday/Thursday Advanced Intermediate Jazz slot he held down for many years taught a slew of young talent—including choreographers-to-be like Jessica Lang and Sergio Trujillo. "As a young teacher, Steps was a platform for me to travel the world giving master classes; it became the underlying foundation for what I'm doing now in my life."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Donald Byrd and Beth Corning share the stage for What's Missing? Photo by Frank Walsh, Courtesy Corning.

When I was approached to write on ageism in dance, I have to admit that after the initial honor of the invite, I suddenly felt old.

I guess I fit the "qualifications" to write this. I'm 63. I've been professionally dancing and choreographing for some 40-plus years, and, in the process, have accumulated a certain amount of perspective on the field. After 20 years running Corning Dances & Company, in 2000 I suddenly looked up and realized I was 10 to 20 years older than my company members. The layers of nuance I was craving were not there; their albeit lithe bodies understandably lacked a base of worldly experience and expression. I couldn't present the kind of movement or conversation I wanted onstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Nicolo Fonte's The Heart(s)pace. Photo by Sharen Bradford, Courtesy ASFB

Small- to medium-sized companies based in cities outside dance meccas—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles—are often written off as "regional," or somehow lesser than their big city counterparts. But in recent decades, a few have defied such categorization as they've gained traction on the national and international scene.

So how does a company build an international profile without losing connection to its hometown? We asked the directors of Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Sarasota Ballet to share their strategies.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Miami City Ballet's Nathalia Arja, PC Alexander Iziliaev

We love learning new things about our favorite dancers through our "Spotlight" Q&A series (like Sterling Baca's obsession with spiders!). One of the questions we always ask is: What's the biggest misconception about dancers?

After a while, we began to sense a pattern in the responses. Here's how five dancers answered the question (warning: this may make you hungry!):

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Photo Caleb Woods via Unsplash.com

Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.

When news about the lawsuit against New York City Ballet and Chase Finlay emerged last week, plaintiff Alexandra Waterbury, a former School of American Ballet student, told The New York Times:

"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."

It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.

But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Karina Gonzalez and baby Julia, photo via Instagram

Houston Ballet principal Karina González stunned audiences last fall with her emotionally charged Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling—while 16 weeks pregnant. "I had to be careful because the pas de deux are crazy," says González, who carefully planned her pregnancy so that she could dance in this ballet. "Thankfully, I had the best partner in Connor Walsh."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Photo via Andrew Seaman/Unsplash

Dear Dance Magazine,

Thank you for demonstrating a commitment to transparency and evolution during this divisive time in our country. Over the past few years I have seen the Dance Magazine content reflect increased awareness about the value of inclusion and diversity in U.S. culture. It also has highlighted the need for the dance industry culture to self-examine and pursue constant revisions (just as dancers themselves do).

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Natasha Sheehan says competing gave her a crack at rep beyond her rank. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB

As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.

"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."

Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Being an introvert doesn't mean you can't shine in the spotlight. Photo by Saksham Gangwar/Unsplash

Most people assume that for dancers to be successful, they have to be extroverts who feed off of constant attention. They figure that introverts don't enjoy being in the spotlight.

But don't let anyone tell you that just because you're introverted, you can't have a career in dance.

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, the only real difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their energy. Extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by time spent alone, while introverts experience the opposite.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Bill T. Jones' Ambros: The Emigrant. PC Paul B. Goode

Bill T. Jones is one of the few choreographers who can weave together social consciousness with choreographic inventiveness. This is visible in all three parts of his Analogy Trilogy, a 6½-hour marathon that comes to NYU Skirball Center on Sept. 22 and 23.

In this Trilogy, Jones goes beyond his own cultural identity. The first part, Dora: Tramontane, centers on Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who tried to help children during World War II. Her ordeal is told through interviews spoken by the dancers and envisioned in shifting scenes. The second part, Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, is about Jones' nephew, and his involvement in the underground world of drugs and sex in New York in the 80s. This section contains several gorgeously choreographed duets. The third part, Ambros: The Emigrant, is not about a real person but about the nature of trauma and memory.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

477,305 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways