Should We Be Having Auditions Specifically for Dancers of Color?

IABD's 2019 men's ballet audition. Photo by Eric A. Smith of CREW Productions, Courtesy IABD

Since they were first offered in 2016, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's ballet auditions for dancers of color have sparked much debate within the dance community. Some believe these auditions create valuable opportunities for dancers of color while others disagree, even going so far as calling them slightly racist.

Still, there's no debating the lack of diversity within professional ballet organizations. In fact, Joan Myers Brown, founder of IABD, created the auditions in response to a director's claim that he didn't know any ballerinas of color to include in his casting. It seems that this controversy isn't only about an audition, but more about searching for a solution to a larger issue.

An IABD audition for student dancers of color

Eric A. Smith of CREW Productions, Courtesy IABD

The Results

At its first ballet audition in 2016, there were nearly 100 participating dancers and representatives from just over a dozen dance organizations in attendance. Since then, hundreds of dancers of color have auditioned for a growing list of companies and schools, which include The Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Texas Ballet Theater, Atlanta Ballet, Nashville Ballet, and Pennsylvania Ballet, among others.

From the four annual auditions that have taken place, more than 100 scholarships or offers have been extended for summer intensives and trainee positions. IABD reports that at least one dancer has performed with a professional company as a result. While results from the 2019 auditions are still being compiled, 58 organizations participated, most of which noted available offers for summer intensive scholarships and trainee opportunities. According to IABD's website, two of the participating companies had open positions.

IABD's 2019 men's ballet audition

Eric A. Smith of CREW Productions, Courtesy IABD

Critical Responses

Even with those outcomes, some, like Robyn Gardenhire, artistic director of City Ballet of Los Angeles and a former American Ballet Theatre dancer, argue that the auditions aren't a suitable solution. An African-American dancer herself, Gardenhire believes the auditions perpetuate further racial division within the ballet community, allowing dancers of color to use race as an excuse for not advancing within the field. "I don't think it really addresses the problem," she says. "I think they're catering to their fears. It's kind of an easy way out that's not going do much in the end."

Dancer Maurissa Powell says she hears lots of differing opinions. "Some people really enjoy the auditions, and then others feel like they don't really get as many offers." Powell, however, has received trainee and scholarship offers from several organizations, including Oregon Ballet Theatre and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, through IABD auditions. She understands the importance of auditioning well, and notes that some dancers have a hard time standing out even in a more "comforting" environment.

Denise Saunders Thompson, president and CEO of IABD, sees the auditions as more of a short-term solution to a long-term effort. "IABD has provided one avenue, and it's the work of these organizations to figure out more ways to become more approachable and to engage with dancers of color more than they normally would," she says.

An IABD audition for student dancers of color

Eric A. Smith of CREW Productions, Courtesy IABD

Are There Other Solutions?

Gardenhire recommends that leaders in the ballet community encourage dancers of color to audition within the community at large. "Do you want to be the best black dancer or the best dancer? You have to push the doors open," she says. She also believes there needs to be more education for parents, possibly with their own conference. "They don't really have the knowledge of where to take their child," says Gardenhire. "They need some coaching."

Saunders Thompson also acknowledges that there are other solutions for making training more accessible. She envisions a ballet community where information, resources and talent are shared freely. "It is my ultimate vision that somehow there is some type of ballet network," she says. "The only way it's going to happen is if people allow themselves to share information. How do we begin to share resources with one another?"

Despite the varying support for these auditions, one fact remains true: IABD has deepened the dialogue on diversity within the ballet community. "A number of the companies that we started the audition process with are now a part of The Equity Project," says Saunders Thompson, referring to a new initiative aimed at increasing the presence of blacks in ballet. "They're going through a process of reevaluation of their organization in many different ways. We are providing an avenue for there to be conversations and evaluations in the field in a way that's never been done before and with some direct results," says Saunders Thompson. "It's work, but there's been some movement on the dial."

Dance on Broadway
Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown

If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.

Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.

Keep reading... Show less
What Dancers Eat
Lindsay Thomas

Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.

So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?

Keep reading... Show less
Simon Soong, Courtesy DDT

When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.

Keep reading... Show less
Alice Pennefather, Courtesy ROH

You ever just wish that Kenneth MacMillan's iconic production of Romeo and Juliet could have a beautiful love child with the 1968 film starring Olivia Hussey? (No, not Baz Luhrmann's version. We are purists here.)

Wish granted: Today, the trailer for a new film called Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words was released, featuring MacMillan's choreography and with what looks like all the cinematic glamour we could ever dream of:

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox