When "Diversity" Isn't Enough

March 30, 2016

Not too long ago Kiara Felder, a dancer with Atlanta Ballet, got a haircut and was surprised by a choreographer’s reaction to it. “I was told my hair looked messy and I needed to do something different with it,” remembers Felder, who is the only African-American female dancer in the company and wears her hair curly and natural. “I looked around the room and saw messy straight hair.” Felder felt embarrassed for being “singled out so publicly” even while she recognizes it was possible the choreographer didn’t intend to discriminate against her.

Kiyon Gaines, a former soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet and now a faculty member in the PNB School, remembers once finding out as a corps member he was not cast in a big story ballet. “I was told, ‘Nothing’s wrong with your technique,’ ” says Gaines, “but there wouldn’t have been people of color in the aristocracy at the time and we’re trying to stay authentic.” While the artistic staff didn’t agree with the choreographer, they did not intervene on Gaines’ behalf. He eventually got the role of “serving man.”

Unfortunately, dancers of color are likely to experience subtle or overt discrimination at some point in their careers. Though Misty Copeland’s rise to stardom has prompted diversification efforts, dancers of color still face huge challenges, particularly in classical ballet, which remains primarily white.

Redefining the Terms

The sylphlike, weightless woman and the tall, slender prince have long been the ideal aesthetic for ballet dancers. Artistic decisions are often made as if the corps were an ensemble of identical clones. But as companies diversify, these standards of beauty become problematic.

Felder has found that leaving pointe shoes shiny when dancers aren’t wearing tights cuts off her line while it might elongate it for those with lighter skin. “I don’t think other people think about it,” Felder says. “It’s a privilege to never have that cross your mind.”

Dancers of color find that their skin tone affects how they are cast as well. Kara Wilkes, a biracial dancer with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, remembers her early years in a less diverse company. “I was always cast as the exotic at Milwaukee Ballet,” she says, “the Arabian in The Nutcracker, and when I progressed to principal roles, Scheherazade. I am not sure if I would have been cast as Odette. I left before finding out.”

Gaines found that his natural body type, while strong and powerful, was never cast as the prince. “The ballet world needs to say, ‘How else can we help make our world more inclusive?’ ” says Gaines. “The aesthetic needs to catch up with the demands of new choreography.”

Finding Community

It can be frustrating to feel like you’re representing your entire race. “With the large African-American population in Atlanta, I feel like people are looking at me,” says Felder. “You are making a statement whether you mean to or not. But it’s an opportunity to show you can do what everyone else can.” While Felder remains an anomaly at Atlanta Ballet, she grew up in a dancing family and has a sister who dances with Carolina Ballet. “We both have challenges and support each other,” says Felder. For Wilkes, early on in her career she found a kindred spirit in a colleague of color. “He was so confident about who he was,” she explains. “He reminded me to be proud of where I came from.”

Gaines has seen that familial support is crucial. “In the African-American community it can still be difficult to get support at home,” he says. “A boy of color came to me and said his parents’ friends made fun of him for dancing.” When Gaines encounters such obstacles, he speaks to parents and the student, emphasizing that the physical prowess dance requires is akin to professional athletics and should be given equal respect.

Using Your Voice

Discrimination in ballet is often made worse by a reluctance to break rank and speak out. However, now in her second season, Felder has a new confidence and feels that if her hair was commented on again, she would stand up for herself. “You don’t want to accuse anyone, but I could politely say, ‘This is the texture of my hair. If you want it styled differently, that should apply to everyone.’ ” Gaines feels that 10 years later, he would ask more questions about the casting situation, and insist on knowing how it could be addressed. Fortunately, both feel hopeful when they look at ballet schools today and see greater diversity than when they were training.