The Times–Are They A-Changin'?

June 28, 2010

As a follow-up to our Race Issue in 2005, we set ourselves this simple question: How diverse is the up-and-coming generation? But this soon splintered into other questions: What opportunities are available to young dancers? How are students engaging with cultures other than their own? What is diversity, anyway?

In talking to artistic directors, educators, and performers about this unwieldy topic, two things became clear. The first is that multiracial dancers are a growing part of the discussion. And second, it’s impossible to separate race from culture.


Eduardo Vilaro
, the new director of Ballet Hispanico, says, “Younger audiences are looking for a reflection of what they see in their environment, which is technology-filled extravaganza that reaches beyond their hometown, their city, their school. It broadens their connection to the greater world. They already understand what it is to be a global village.”


Cuban-born Vilaro feels that young dancers thrive on diversity. “I see them joke around, using racial stereotypes in very fun ways. But to me that’s questioning, and that’s investigating. They are taking chances and opening up the dialogue—talking about your nappy head, or your funny accent. At the same time they’ll say, ‘Hey, let me tell you a little more about this,’ or ‘No, you’ve got it wrong.’ ”


Vilaro enjoys the wealth of Latino dancers in New York, many trained at Juilliard, Ailey/Fordham, or ballet schools. “But then you have this mixture, these other students of color, often mixed race, that are coming from a university background that are well-trained also, but not so classical.” Vilaro, who is of mixed heritage (Asian, African, and Spanish), says that many of the Ballet Hispanico dancers are also mixed. One dancer’s parents are Dominican and Armenian; another is Mexican and African American. “It speaks to me as someone who is of mixed race and who grabs at many different cultural backgrounds in order to create my identity.”


On the college and university scene, we spoke to Susan Lee, who directs the dance program at Northwestern University. Active in American College Dance Festivals for years, Lee says that the Midwest region has grown in diver­sity in the last 10 years, especially African Americans and Asians. In a recent improvisation course, she says, “I had B-boys in the class and kids who studied bharata natyam. I was thrilled! In the discussions they are really sharing their unique perspectives.” She says they quickly learn “that they need to find common languages. When they talk about nuances from their form, they have to recognize that not everybody knows what they are talking about at first. They love to rise to that challenge.”


One way that diversity can be measured is in student-run companies. Lee says that when she started at Northwestern 30 years ago, there were only two on campus. Now there are at least 22, and they have helped attract African American students to dance. “I think it’s the fusion forms they are really excited about,” Lee says. “They are doing African dance and whatever else they have brought in as part of the mix.”


These student companies have lively names like Boomshaka (hip hop, tap, drumming); Deeva Dance Troupe (all-female group blending Indian classical, folk, jazz, modern, and hip hop); the NAYO Dance Ensemble (modern dance, hip hop, tap, Latin, African Dance, salsa, ballet—whew!); and Typhoon Dance Troupe (dances of East and Southeast Asia).


As more culturally specific forms become available in colleges, they are opening up to students of other cultures. D. Sabela Grimes, a hip hop dancer formerly with Rennie Harris Puremovement, offers a course called Funkamentals at the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, which has a heavily Asian student population. He teaches not only technique but also the lineage of black social dance forms.


Grimes says getting into hip hop is a matter of access points. “Someone that’s Asian coming into the class has to negotiate their access point. How do I enter the circle? A lot of people still believe that if you’re black you have easier access, but I would say it’s different.” He continues: “It’s like you’re going through chambers. You reach one chamber of the commu­nity and you explore it, only to find out that you can go further down the rabbit hole, so to speak. There are other chambers that exist.”


One Asian who has passed through some of those chambers is dancer/choreographer/actor Harry Shum Jr., now appearing in the TV show Glee. As a kid learning street moves, he says, “hip hop was mainly minority driven, so it was something I felt comfortable in. With my friends, it wasn’t about a color. We weren’t like, ‘You can’t do this because you are white or you are black.’ We had this universal thing, which was dance, and we all just had fun with it.”


However, when he got to Los Angeles, things changed. “When you start going into the business it’s a little different. Some people do have a lot of struggle, but for me, my ethnicity worked to my advantage. In Hollywood they can say, ‘We want this certain look.’ The first iPod commercials were silhouetted, but when I did the ones where you could see me dance, it was ‘Oh, he looks good for it, and we love his dancing, so let’s do it.’”


He feels the industry is discovering the appeal of diversity, especially with backup dancers. “For Beyoncé, they brought me in because they wanted an Asian guy,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a give and take. I don’t feel that they hired me just because I was Asian. I was a good, capable dancer.”


Shum is very clear that he hasn’t gone through all the chambers. “There are people who are really hard-core that feel that once it hits the mainstream it’s not real, it’s not legit,” he says. “I don’t think that’ll ever go away.”


But that doesn’t bother him. “I don’t consider myself a popper. I don’t con­sider myself a B-boy. I consider myself a dancer, a free-styler, and I don’t feel that anybody can take that away from me. I put all these things together myself; I made my own salad.”


Ananya Chatterjea
leads a dance company based on contemporary interpretations of classical Indian dance forms for women of color in Minneapolis. She believes that the younger generation of women is more open, but less motivated. “When a huge, momentous event happens in their lifetime, like the election of President Obama, they have this idea that things are OK now. So yes, they are more open, but that doesn’t mean that the difficulties around race have gone away.” When she came to New York in 1989, she recalls, “it felt really urgent to have a space for conversation among different communities of women of color.”


Currently involved in a multi-year community project on anti-violence, Chatterjea decided that the issue is broader than women of color. So she started what she calls the Allies program, to include white women as well. “If they have the training and the form, and they understand the ideas on which the work is based, then we can say, ‘Yes, dance with us.’ ” And in fact, a white woman who was her student at the University of Minnesota has joined the group.


“The dancers in my company are women of color,” says Chatterjea, “but most of my students are white. They talk to each other, and it is no longer a ghettoized situation. So they can say, ‘Oh, OK, you go to this Pilates studio? You’re doing hot yoga? Is that helping your back?’ ”

But her first commitment is to artistic merit. “The mainstream can stop me from going anywhere, but I am committed to excellence in my dancing and in my craft.”


Like Chatterjea, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, artistic director of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, says his first priority is artistic excellence. “I have the option to hire different nationalities, but I am looking for good dancers first. Dance doesn’t have a race, doesn’t have a palette.” With a Parisian mother and Caribbean father, he says, “I am mixed race, and I am drawn to diversity.”


Swan-Pouffer came to New York after his training at the Conservatoire in Paris, where he was one of the very few students of color. Attending The Ailey School was a revelation (pardon the expression) for him, as in, “Wow, I’m seeing a lot of black dancers out there!” Recalling his time at Ailey, he says, “The first word that comes to mind is nor­malcy. I felt, ‘Now it is not about my color.’ It made me push harder. I had to stand out differently.”


He feels that diversity within a com­pany creates a certain synergy. “When I have someone who was born and raised in Paris and someone who was born and raised in Korea, two individuals dance together and without knowing it they tell a story. I think half of the company is from another country. So all this generates energy, and it brings out of my dancers the combustion of all those energies.”


In the 17 years Swan-Pouffer has been in New York, he has seen the opportunities grow. He cites the reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, as well as companies like Complexions and Cedar Lake and Broadway musicals like In The Heights.


Even the School of American Ballet, that stronghold of purity (and whiteness), is working to boost its diversity. , co-chair of the faculty, has seen growth since the 1990s, when the school started giving community auditions. At first they were just to find boys, but since 1998, the auditions, which are now given in Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Chinatown, feed girls into the school also. As a result SAB has doubled its minority population from 12 percent to almost 24 percent. “We’re getting a lot more diversity than we ever had before, which is what Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein wanted, and what Peter Martins wants,” Mazzo says.


However, the community auditions are mostly for the children’s division, ages 6 through 10. For the advanced classes, auditions are held year-round at SAB and there is an annual audition tour, which attracts mostly white kids who are already steeped in ballet. SAB’s executive director, Marjorie Van Dercook, admits, “Our advanced division is not as diverse as we’d like it to be—although we’ve made a lot of strides.”

For companies and schools that have attained a measure of diversity, they are finding that it’s not just politically or socially correct, but also artistically vital. Eduardo Vilaro has stretched the “Hispanico” of Ballet Hispanico in terms of both dancers and choreographers. “I find that in diversity there is a richness, a contrast, a yin and yang. It gives a beautiful mix onstage. I’m looking forward to broadening even more. Now that we are diverse, let’s start the conversations.”



Wendy Perron is editor in chief of
Dance Magazine.


Photo of Ballet Hispanico dancers by Matthew Karas