Other Voices on Race

June 20, 2007

When I began studying dance in the 1970s I had never seen any Asian dancers and I didn’t know if I would have a future in dance. That began to change when I saw the Ailey company and their Asian dancers. When I joined the Martha Graham Company, Martha had a fascination with Asian people. She told me a story of when she was younger being mistaken for being Chinese in a Chinese restaurant; she seemed to relish the thought. Because of my race I was given roles I never expected to get. There were also roles that grieved me, but I knew that was part of the deal. When I was rehearsal director, Martha ran the company like a court: There were people who were let into the inner circle and people who weren’t. I think one of the reasons I was let in was because I was Chinese and she felt she could trust me because of that.

David Hochoy, artistic director, Dance Kaleidoscope (Indianapolis)


I remember a ballet teacher who told me to “Stop sticking my butt out.” I said, “I’m not. I can’t do anything about that. It’s not going anywhere.” I didn’t have too many African Americans in my class. In college I was one of only two black students in ballet class. We hardly ever got corrections. It seemed like we were being bypassed. My feeling was she thought “They don’t have what it takes.” Later I was always getting roles where I was supposed to have soul or be spunky. They’d tell me, “Be more spunky” or “Be more soulful.” I didn’t know what they wanted. But I’d give a movement more hip or groove, or I’d give a ripple to my arms. Then I’d see if that’s what they wanted.

Monique Haley, jazz dancer with River North Chicago Dance Company


In the late ’80s and early ’90s, multiculturalism was a visible policy. The foundations were interested in diversifying their funding. It was a critical moment for me and other artists of color, but there was a complicated side to it. We were expected to do things that had to do with our ancestry—African, Indian, whatever. But white people were not asked to look at their racial identity; they were not asked to do anything different from the minimal, abstract, angst-driven modern dances that they’d been doing. My dances were misunderstood. In one dance I wore a carnivalesque outfit and sang the Chiquita banana theme song while a white male performer bossed me around. He’d tell me not to move my hips so much and not to talk so loud. He was trying to tone me down. The dance was about colonialization and cultural imperialism, but the audience thought I was trying to be Carmen Miranda. They thought I was making fun of Latin culture, but I was trying to show that I was not being accepted for who I am. You don’t know how many times I was asked to do samba. I got calls from Long Island to perform at parties imitating Carmen Miranda!

Patricia Hoffbauer, choreographer, NYC (from Brazil)


When I first started with Harkness, I became the company exotic. Whenever there was some kind of creature role, it was given to me. I was that thing that rose out of the woodwork wearing brown tights below my navel. I was one of those apparitions who are supposed to frighten people. Or I was cast as the noble savage, with a jewel in my navel and a long black wig. I don’t feel it was racial at all. Everybody was being dressed as Indians. I started to hate it. I wanted to wear the white tights and do the classical parts. As I got better technically, I was able to get better parts. If I have been discriminated against, I’m not feeling great pain.

Finis Jhung, ballet teacher, NYC


I’ve been lucky that I have never had a problem with race. In ballet, unlike other parts of society, no matter what your race is, we are all doing the same things. In Pittsburgh or in Japan the barre and center are the same. I might have different customs or speak differently, but in ballet our jobs are the same no matter your race.

Kaori Ogasawara, soloist, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre


From my perspective as director of the school of dance, the black students have always worked harder and always had to be better than everyone else. Sometimes I tell them, “It’s OK to be OK; you don’t always have to strive to be the best.” But I guess that is just part of the gestalt—that you have to excel in everything.

Susan Glazer, Director, University of the Arts Dance Program (Philadelphia)


The Cotton Club was in Harlem but black people couldn’t go there [as patrons]. Only the whites could go there. But my brother [Harold] and I, we had great parents who taught us right from wrong. We knew something was wrong at the Cotton Club. But when I asked the manager to let us go out and meet all these stars who came to see [our] show—Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Gloria Swanson, Eleanor Powell, Jimmy Raney, George Raft and Harold Lloyd—we were the only ones who could go out there and mingle, I guess because we were so young. So that’s why we didn’t find much prejudice. I always think of myself as an entertainer. I don’t think about color. Because when I watch other entertainers, I just think about them entertaining me. I just erase any of this race thing ‘cause it would probably spoil what I’m looking at.

Fayard Nicholas, of the Nicholas Brothers

I actually looked at my race as an advantage because there was no one who looked like me. In New York City Ballet especially, I felt my casting has always been great. The biggest one for me was Fancy Free because, if you think of the history of that ballet, it’s not necessarily the case that in the 1940s an Indian guy was one of the sailors fighting for America. But they let me do that here, and I thought, “I’m breaking boundaries that people automatically put up for a stereotypical white ballet.”

Amar Ramasar, corps, New York City Ballet


My own father said to me. “I think your lecture-demonstrations are very interesting, but why don’t you ever talk about Fred Astaire?” Well Dad, I said, because many people already identify him with tap dance, and there is a much larger history that involves African American artists. When I started my career you couldn’t find any African Americans wanting to be in a tap company—just us white women. Later things changed and I could remember when writers defined tap as being a black art, which made it tough for me to get jobs. Nowadays, younger people aren’t so involved in race and they don’t see things the way I did, having lived through the 1960s. Parts of the dance world now are way more adventurous than society at large, and that has had beautiful results.

Lynn Dally, artistic director, Jazz Tap Ensemble (Los Angeles)


I didn’t know that I was white until I came to New York. Growing up in France, my race or skin color was never something used to describe my artistry. But in New York, I was told that “for a white girl you can really dance.” I thought it was bizarre, like you couldn’t be good in tap if you were white. Then people wanted to justify my greatness by my Arabic ancestry, like I must be black somehow. I decided not to care. I’m good because I practice what I do, not because I’m Arabic. Now people are more relaxed about that kind of thing and are more open than before.

Roxane Butterfly, tap dancer, NYC

There are not enough opportunities for Hispanics on Broadway. I’ve gone to a lot of auditions in my life. My experience is that you have to work harder. If there’s an opening for Anita in West Side Story, I’m a shoe-in. However, I can’t go for My Fair Lady or Carousel. They won’t ask me to audition. I’ve been to auditions where I’m the only brunette and I know I’m not going to get it. They won’t say to my face that it’s because I’m Hispanic. It’s unspoken. You just move on.

Nancy Ticotin, dancer, singer, actress, NYC


The dance world is very diverse, but being a black female ballet dancer, we have it the hardest. There is a huge number of talented black female ballet dancers, and I don’t think we are represented to our fullest. My friends and I have to look very closely at the diversity of the companies we audition for. Race is always present in our lives; often we are not considered just good dancers, but good black dancers. I am proud to give inspiration to young black females trying to make it in ballet, but I know they will have to work 10 times harder to be noticed.

Angela Harris, dancer, Georgia Ballet


Race has helped create an identity for the company I ran in New York, which was perceived as working in an African American aesthetic and dealing with social issues. But presenting organizations seem to have an unspoken quota on the number of black artists they want to bring. Either I am up against that quota, or, when booked, battling the perception that my work is not black enough. I think there is still a certain amount of racism that is based in expectations of what black is. If you are an African American choreographer, the expectation is that you will only make work that falls within certain narrow parameters and you are penalized if you don’t do that.

Donald Byrd, artistic director, Spectrum Dance Theater (Seattle)


For there to be a token situation, obviously the dancer would not be the same caliber as the others. I’ve never seen that. If you’re good, you’re good. For instance in Movin’ Out, Desmond [Richardson] does the Tony role and Karine [Plantadit-Bageot] does the Brenda role. They both happen to be black, but they are there because they are great and accomplished dancers. When I started break dancing, I never thought I was an interloper because the guys I was dancing with were Latin, black, and white. So it was never really an issue. Right now in the dance world there seems to be more racial harmony than in the outside world.

John Selya, lead dancer, Movin’ Out


Hip hop has grown worldwide and it has been affected in a positive way by race. I know negativity is out there in the world, but I think the arts are more accepting of race than in society in general. People of different races have crossed more barriers by using dance as a tool to understand each other.

Ken Jimenez, artistic director/dancer, Elements of Motion (Boulder, Colorado)


Modern dance, at least as long as I have been in New York, has been multi[racial]. I’ve never run into any problems that way. Big Bertha is supposed to be [a dance about] a typical American white family—mother, daughter, and daddy. Carolyn Adams [who is African American] was cast as the daughter with two white parents, and I didn’t think it mattered. Dance does reflect the times, no matter if it’s abstract or not. I just think in my time this matter of race has always been more or less like it is now. From the beginning different races were included and made all kinds of wonderful contributions that way.

Paul Taylor, artistic director, Paul Taylor Dance Company

Until Mr. Balanchine brought Arthur Mitchell into the New York City Ballet, there were few, if any, black dancers in the company. This was probably not a result of racism, but the desire for conformity. Just as you didn’t mix tall and short dancers, you didn’t mix colors onstage. In NYCB Arthur changed that. He was such a stunning dancer that conformity never was an issue. I remember a particularly glorious performance of his in Divertimento No. 15. When I congratulated him, he said jokingly, “Millie, I just thought white and elegant.” Today black dancers are an integral part of ballet companies and musicals, but not to the degree that their proportion of the dance population warrants. Here at the North Carolina School of the Arts, a representative proportion of black dancers fill major roles in our productions. But here also the black dancers have to be unusually good, rather than just average. Once again I do not think this is a result of racism, but of the aesthetics of conformity. But the dance world is in constant change, and in every way it is getting better.

Melissa Hayden, former principal, NYCB; faculty, North Carolina School of the Arts


I fell in love with Ballet Hispanico and the idea of being a Latin dancer in a Latin company in the United States. It’s wonderful to be in a company where you can explore your roots and there is a respect for who you are and where you come from. But sometimes you perform or teach in a place where you know you’re not welcome. There is a coldness. There is an attitude that you come from another planet—you can tell by the funny looks. [But] as soon as I put on the music and get one, then two students dancing, they see that it’s real and it’s fun and they all join in. They realize you don’t have to be Latino to enjoy this culture and live this expression. [In dance] we communicate with movement. We all have one language.

Pedro Ruiz, choreographer, principal dancer, Ballet Hispanico, NYC


Maybe I’m naive or blissfully unaware, but I haven’t really experienced any racism. Growing up in Fairbanks, I had very supportive ballet teachers, and then I went to Juilliard, which was a diverse environment. My background is Inupiaq Eskimo, which is the northern most tribe of Inuits in Alaska. In school we studied the traditional native dances, and when I was around 16, I demonstrated them for the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. Dancing them, I felt connected to my body for the first time. It was totally different than my formal training because ballet didn’t come naturally to me. The Eskimo dances are very earthy and you follow the beat of the drum. Like Trisha’s movement, it’s very organic.

Brandi Norton, dancer, Trisha Brown Dance Company


When I first saw Philadanco, I knew I wanted to dance with the company. I auditioned five times before getting in. The director said that because I was Caucasian she really wanted to make sure that I would fit in. I think you have to be much stronger in your abilities to overcome being in the minority in a dance company. In a black company you couldn’t have a Caucasian woman doing the lead roles in every piece. I remember being booed once in Mississippi when I first came out onstage because of my race. Opportunities seem a lot more open to me these days. Times are changing and people see things differently. Now they don’t necessarily see a black man dancing with a white woman: They just see two dancers.

Tracy Vogt, dancer, Verb Ballets (Cleveland)


I think it was very important to Mr. Ailey and also to Ms. Jamison that the company be predominantly African American because no other company is going to be. These wonderful dancers must have a place to go. As The Ailey School began to train more and more dancers, white dancers have gotten into the Ailey company because they’ve been trained here. They aren’t only doing ballet and modern technique, but also West African, jazz, Dunham, hip hop. And I love this: White dancers, Asian dancers, Hispanic dancers, and black dancers are all moving the same way. Ms. Jamison has a greater range of dancers to choose from. One of the newer dancers in our company is Gwynnen Jones; she goes out there—this tall blond woman doing Revelations. Thank you! How wonderful! As artists it is important that we be free—no matter what our racial and ethnic roots are—to find and define and follow our aesthetic.

Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School