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.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
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.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.