The lack of Black ballet teachers in professional training programs has long been known to be a weakness holding the field back from true inclusivity. The common refrain of "We can't find them" might have been plausible before, given the scarcity of professional Black ballet dancers. Yet suddenly, qualified candidates are springing up. (Perhaps the world being on fire smoked them out?) To quote choreographer William Isaac, "There seems to be an arms race to hire Black ballet teachers."
Last fall, the schools of Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, as well as the School of American Ballet, all welcomed new, full-time Black ballet teachers. To be fair, some of these hires had been in the works for a few years. But what's kept ballet faculties so white for so long?
With a culture akin to country clubs and Ivy League schools, ballet acts like an old boys' network; it's about who you know, and to know the right people, you have to occupy certain spaces. It is cyclic: Access and opportunity creates access and opportunity. That has historically kept the circle quite tight, and white. The common requirement of a certain pedigree and artistic lineage among faculty members has perpetuated a deficit of Black ballet teachers. These additions to the top ballet training programs are a step in the right direction.
School of American Ballet: Aesha Ash
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB
Over a shared history of more than seven decades, New York City Ballet and SAB have maintained the purity of their bloodline with the company hiring almost exclusively from its school, and the school from NYCB alums. That makes diversification of the SAB faculty difficult, since the company has welcomed a total of 32 Black dancers, including 13 current members. Aesha Ash, who joins fellow Black NYCB alum Craig Hall on faculty this year, fits the criteria: "She's a spectacular teacher, she's an SAB alum, a City Ballet alum and understands Mr. Balanchine's aesthetic," says SAB chairman of faculty Kay Mazzo.
For Ash, this is an opportunity to be something she needed when she was a student at the school. "I think about the loneliness and isolation I felt," she says. "If my presence makes one little girl feel validated, my job is done."
There now seems to be a realization that hiring solely from NYCB's ranks inhibits the possibility of true diversification. "We have two visiting faculty chairs this year, Leyland Simmons and Alicia Holloway, both SAB alums, but they didn't dance in City Ballet, so this is a first," says Mazzo. The school also plans to engage participants from SAB's National Visiting Fellows Program, which invites ballet teachers with diverse student populations to teach and observe classes, discuss SAB's curriculum, and engage in dialogue around pedagogy techniques, school management and other topics twice a year. Since 2015 the program has accepted numerous Black teachers. "With our national visiting fellows as guest teachers in the future, we will be opening doors," says Mazzo. "It's no longer the model that Mr. Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein started."
Boston Ballet School: Andrea Long-Naidu
Boston Ballet School's hiring of Andrea Long-Naidu has a similar thread of lineage. Director Margaret Tracey is a former NYCB principal, and danced there alongside Long-Naidu. "Andrea was a really intelligent dancer in her technical approach. She was incredibly musical and really fast, could learn choreography really quickly," Tracey recalls. She could see those elements in some of Long-Naidu's students who had been accepted into BBS.
Long-Naidu is highly pedigreed: A one-time student of Lupe Serrano (the former American Ballet Theatre star who directed Pennsylvania Ballet's school), she studied at SAB, and is an NYCB alum and former Dance Theatre of Harlem principal. Tracey told her, "Look, you are going to fit in professionally with your expertise automatically. You're going to come into a circle, and a team of people who have a shared background with you."
Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB
For Long-Naidu, who comes to BBS from Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, this is a dream. She will be teaching a wide range of levels, from children to the second company. "To be in a school where you know that you can directly affect the look of that company is amazing," she says. "For me, as a teacher, to get them from point A to point Z when they go into the company...what an incredible opportunity."
Pacific Northwest Ballet School: Ikolo Griffin
After Kiyon Ross became director of company operations at Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2019, it left a void in the school faculty. He'd been a beloved Black male teacher in the men's division and professional program, so when looking to replace him, there were conversations about the importance of both gender and racial representation. Then Ikolo Griffin's resumé landed on artistic director Peter Boal's desk. Denise Bolstad, PNB School's managing director, was familiar with him—he was a former PNB summer intensive student—and had followed his career: Originally introduced to dance through San Francisco Ballet's Dance in Schools and Communities program, he became SFB's first outreach student to join that company, and he also danced professionally with DTH (as a principal) and The Joffrey Ballet.
"You knew he would teach in a way that would be complementary to what PNB was looking for in a faculty member," Boal says. But, he adds, "You can always question whether or not you should be looking for someone who teaches like you or whether you should expand the way that you're teaching, and that is something that we are thinking about now."
San Francisco Ballet School: Jason Ambrose
When San Francisco Ballet School faculty member Anne-Sophie Rodriguez and Edward Ellison recommended their former Ellison Ballet student Jason Ambrose to SFB school director Patrick Armand, he was struck by his CV. "It was a totally different ball game," says Armand.
Ambrose started late, at 17, in his native Virginia Beach under Cuban Ana Maria Martinez; two years later he was in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's graduate program. After attending the Bolshoi Ballet Academy New York summer intensive, he trained at Ellison Ballet for three years and began to choreograph competition solos for his classmates. Just as he was ready to transition to professional, a medical setback derailed him.
Chris Hardy, Courtesy SFB
"I had a lot of opportunities waiting for me, and then I got really sick and had to go home and have an operation on my stomach related to my Crohn's disease," he says. In 2015, Oleg Vinogradov, director of the Ballet Theatre of St. Petersburg Conservatoire in Russia, saw Ambrose's choreography and invited him to study in the ballet masters and choreographers program, and dance with the program's company.
It was Ambrose's mastery of the Vaganova training that sold Armand. "He is really young to have that quality in his teaching," Armand says. "He has an innate talent; his classes are very sound. He studied Vaganova, so there is a real school behind the process. It is what we needed."
The Power of Representation
For too long, Black ballet teachers were siloed to outreach and community programs because "the kids needed to see themselves." When we talk about representation, most frequently we are referring to marginalized people seeing themselves; however, it is almost more important that white students, parents and patrons see and experience expertise from people of other colors. The truth of the matter is that, though systemic racism may stymie access and opportunity, most non-white people are already aware of their capability.
Building a strong and effective faculty is alchemy. Relying on pedigree takes some of the guesswork out of finding the right fit. However, if schools are looking for diverse representation sooner rather than later, they will have to step outside of their elitist comfort zone and acknowledge the implicit bias that believes only those who have had the prescribed trajectory are capable, and that ballet teachers should look, sound and instruct in a particular way. Schools will have to actively recruit and cultivate teachers with diverse backgrounds the same way they have with students. If we are going to shift the art form, ballet will have to abandon the traditional prescriptive, and embrace unorthodox. We cannot change and stay the same.
Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of MoBBallet, has worked as a consultant at Pacific Northwest Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Boston Ballet. This piece is a companion to her essay "Tokenism vs. Representation: How Can We Tell Them Apart?"