After years of rigorous training, ballet dancers become accustomed to constructive and oftentimes harsh criticism. Being scrutinized is something that comes with the territory.
I myself spent the better half of my high school years in Russia, where political correctness does not get in the way of progress. We were trained to use criticism as fuel to propel us forward. Everything said in class or rehearsal was meant to help better ourselves and not to be taken personally.
But where is the line between helpful advice and offensive language?
As a seasoned dancer of color, I've heard my fair share of (perhaps too many) offensive remarks.
As a young boy I was drawn to the drama and romanticism of the ballet. My mother sought out the best Russian teachers in Philadelphia and eventually I made the move the prestigious Moscow State Academy of Choreography (aka the Bolshoi Ballet Academy). I had the opportunity to perform many virtuosic and romantic roles during my school years. Unfortunately there were many times throughout my training that people would make comments regarding my race.
In one instance, a woman who had watched me perform a variation from Coppélia for a competition asked me if I would consider dancing Ali instead (the slave variation from Le Corsaire), insinuating that it would be a better fit.
Another time, someone asked me if I was thinking of going to a primarily black dance company, listing the few options she thought would fit me, including modern dance companies.
NY Dance Project, Courtesy Shayer
I like to think that they didn't intend to offend me, but I couldn't help but feel discouraged. After all my training and coaching, after drilling variations and pas de deux, people couldn't see past my skin color enough for them to consider me a classical ballet dancer or a prince.
It's difficult to describe how it feels to work your whole life for one goal, only to be pigeonholed or rejected because of your skin color. Assumptions about dancers of color keep us constantly on guard and asking insecure questions.
Does my casual stance and the way my lips rest make you think I have an attitude? Do the shape of my eyes look too severe to be considered sensitive? Is my hair tame enough in rehearsal to insure that I will look tame on stage? Am I allowed to use my voice to provide my perspective without you feeling threatened? How can I become the artist I want to be if I'm constantly watering myself down to fit in?
There have been numerous occasions where my intent was misinterpreted, and in turn I was told that I was being held back from an opportunity for my "attitude problem." For years, people of color have had to stifle their own progress to be more digestible for a Euro-centric palette.
Young dancers go through so much already. There's body shame, struggles with inadequacy, jealousy, competition, mental and physical stress. To add racism and identity crisis to that plate is an unfair disadvantage.
So what can young dancers do when confronted with discouraging comments?
My advice is to talk to people about it. Ask someone if they think something said to you was offensive. Sure, everyone's feelings are relative to their own experiences but hearing the opinions of others may help you understand other perspectives, and whether there's something that needs to be addressed.
If you're a student in a school with a guidance counselor on site, tell them what's going on. Or speak to your parents and have them help you set up a conversation with the director of your school.
As a member of American Ballet Theatre, some of us rely on the discretion of our HR department. Talking to an impartial judge can help change your environment to a more accepting space. In my personal experience, these conversations can be difficult, but I've learned how to channel my perspective in a productive manner which will hopefully help people in authoritative positions learn how to nurture their dancers instead of putting them down.
We at ABT are very supportive of one another and in times of stress or discouragement, there is always someone to talk to. It always helps to have supportive friends and colleagues. Talk to them about your issues—it will at the very least be a cathartic release.