With all my heart I feel this is a major time of change. Eyes are being pulled wide open more than before and people are seeing the need for larger changes in their lives and in their communities. I definitely feel it in mine.
I live in a suburb of Minneapolis near the senseless killing of Geoge Floyd. It is actually the same suburb where George Floyd lived. Like most of the world I witnessed the unimaginable event on the news and experienced the outrage after the fact.
Since, there has been so much sadness and anger here and all over the world. I have to admit I am not the best with words but my heart goes out to those who have been treated unfairly for far too long in our society. We all know this is not the first time something like this has happened and it still continues to happen. We desperately need to do better.
I know I will never understand fully what people of color experience. However it is my responsibility to try to understand the best I can and to help out the best I can. As I look at myself and who I am and how I influence others I know there are things I can do as a person, as a mother and as a performing arts teacher. Since this is a blog for dance teachers that is where this article will focus. For those of us who are in the dance industry we can learn about the history of ballet, understand how people of color have been treated and what steps we can do to improve and make ballet more inclusive.
I have been researching African Americans in ballet for a while and am finally making some progress. It is important we include people of color when we talk about ballet history. Inequality does exist in the ballet world and changes need to be made.
For example,what do you think of when you think of a ballerina? Someone who is light, beautiful and graceful? Do you have a complete picture of what that looks like? Has your view changed at all in your lifetime?
I remember a few years ago when Misty Copeland was making the publicity rounds for the movie The Nutcracker. I am in awe of her so I watched many of her interviews. In every program I watched she talked about the barriers she has broken in the ballet world. She mentioned that someday she hopes she won’t be considered a “brown ballerina” she will be “just a ballerina”.
At the same time she recognizes the accomplishments she has made being a ballerina of color. This is something that should be celebrated. She worked very hard to get to where she is and had to overcome many obstacles that maybe she wouldn’t have had to if she were white.
Misty Copeland was not only cast as the ballerina princess in a major motion picture but she was also the first African American ballet dancer to be promoted to prima ballerina of a major international company, American Ballet Theater (ABT) in 2015. She also was the only black dancer for a long time when she danced at ABT.
We have not seen many ballet dancers of color in history. Being on equal footing has been more than a struggle for them. Here are some facts we all need to be aware of. Dancers of color were told:
They needed to lighten their skin in order to get jobs.
Their feet were too flat.
The color of their skin and muscular figure would be distracting to audiences.
They should stick to african or modern dance.
There are not any black ballet dancers.
“You are not welcome here.”
Misty mentions she felt fortunate she didn’t experience inequality until she tried to have a professional career. When she was learning to dance she had so much support from her instructor, Cynthia Bradely. She feels that encouragement gave her the confidence to stand up for herself. Early in her career she, like many other dancers of color, was told to lighten her skin to fit in with the ballet blanc. She said no.
It wasn’t until recently shoe companies even started making ballet shoes in different shades for dancers of different skin tones. Ballet shoes are supposed to be an extension of the leg so dancers can make beautiful lines. African American dancers had to use makeup to color their shoes to match their skin tone. It is surprising how long it has taken to not only be aware of the need for dancewear for everyone but actually have them in production. We are finally now seeing more choices.
Progress is slow but I am hopeful for the future.
There are small changes being made in other performing arts industries as well. Movies, TV and theater productions are becoming more diverse. They are casting more people of color and more productions are being made about people of color. The industry is starting to see there is a need for more diversity in performers and stories being told. Again I know there is more to be done but I do see people who are trying to make changes. Even locally people are calling attention to organizations that need to be more inclusive. Being aware is the beginning of change. Hopefully we will get to a point where the performing arts, including ballet are truly diverse.
Let’s now go back to, what does a ballerina look like? Maybe we should instead ask, what makes a great dancer? Do their grand jetés defy gravity? Can they turn for days? Can they make us feel something? For me, professional ballet needs to wow me with elements I could only dream I could do, while telling a story at the same time. That is why I love dance. The combination of athleticism and emotion. Is that just one color?
So what can we, in the dance industry and those who support ballet, do to make ballet more diverse?
The first thing to do is to look around. Awareness is key. Is the school or company in which we are dancing diverse? Are the productions we go to see diverse?
Understanding comes second. If our school or company is not diverse, then we need to ask why? Are we welcoming people of color? Are we creating opportunities? What is the message we are sending out?
Finally, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to create opportunities for people of color?
First start with what is close to you. Do you have a school? If so, make sure your program is inclusive. Is everyone receiving the same opportunities? Does your dress code include everyone? Can you provide opportunities for students of color in your program?
If you don’t have your own studio, support schools and companies that are diverse to help them thrive. You can do so with donations and going to see their productions.
Then you can also support programs outside your area. There are many great programs that reach out to young people of color who are interested in ballet such as –
The Swan Dream Project
Brown Girls Do Ballet
Misty Copeland is an advisor for Project Plié and a MindLeaps ambassador. Going back to when she mentioned that someday she hopes she won’t be a “brown ballerina” she will be “just a ballerina”. The fact that most of us couldn’t ever dream of being the dancer she is, in my eyes she could never be “just a ballerina”. She will always be an incredible ballerina!
Wish Upon a Ballet™ is a part of Mayer Arts, a performing arts program for children in the Minneapolis / St Paul Metro Area. We are dedicated to reaching students of all communities through supportive and affordable dance and theater classes. Our classes are welcoming, creative and super fun!
Mayer Arts is also proud to partner with Emergency Arts, in July/August 2020, helping to make art supply boxes for children in need. According to their website “Art helps us work through grief, loss and trauma. Art can help us process and express our thoughts, feelings and experiences, create meaning and to build connections. Emergency Arts Boxes are filled with art supplies that will be distributed to people devastated by the killing of George Floyd and impacted by the public health issue of racism in Minneapolis.”