“This month, Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack made history as the first black ballet dancers to star in Swan Lake, arguably the most infamous ballet ever. In 2015, that means Copeland and Mack are the first blacks to dance lead in Swan Lake in about 140 years. The world of ballet clearly has a color problem.
A Leak in the Pipeline
Of course there are serious pipeline issues. For a lot of people, professional ballet training is just too expensive. Then there’s the factor of location. Many communities simply don’t have the facilities or dance and ballet schools that better resourced communities have.
When long time artistic director of The Washington Ballet, Septime Webre, was asked years ago why he had no African American dancers in his company, part of his reply was:
“that would remain the case until the great training grounds, the great ballet schools of America become welcoming places for 9-year-old black girls. Families need to feel that their daughter or son of color is welcomed in these big ballet academies.” —Septime Webre
Webre’s statement points to the pipeline, the schools and training institutions, as a reason for the lack of professional black ballerinas. However, Webre doesn’t use cost and location as an excuse. His comments get to the heart of something more insidious—interpersonal discrimination.
Your Kind isn’t Welcomed Here
In many institutions, not just ballet schools, students of color are made to feel unwelcomed, alienated, and marginalized as a result of direct or indirect words and actions from their peers, teachers, and administrators. I don’t have space in this post to thoroughly explain this phenomenon, but I will make a few general statements.
- Being the only person of color in a classroom or school is often enough by itself (without direct or overt racism) to alienate a student.
- Indirect, latent, subtle, well-meaning, light-hearted, humorous, micro-aggressive discrimination or harassment is often invisible to others and difficult to explain or “prove” because of the nuanced and subjective nature of such encounters. And the burden is always on the student of color to prove that their experience was discriminatory or unfair.
- The two things I just described add an additional burden and stress on top of the standard task of being a good student and a developing adolescent.
- Carla A. Urena and Joyelle Fobbs explain:
“the perception of what constitutes a talented or gifted dancer often effects the quality of training a student may receive.” —Urena
“research indicates that having some or several of these European phenotypes appears to be linked with increased classroom attention , training and opportunities…” —Fobbs
Even if a black ballerina makes it through the great training grounds of ballet, she will still have to overcome the biases of artistic directors, judges, choreographers, audiences, reviewers, colleagues, and others.
People have preconceived notions about black women that do not match their preconceived notions of ballerinas. While the world may think of black women as physically “strong” and thus suited for sports, many (most?) people do not think of black women as graceful, poised, light, delicate, dainty, feminine, and soft—all the things a ballerina should be. These preconceived beliefs often obscure reality, so that even when a black woman is dainty or soft, she often is not perceived that way. African American ballet dancer Joyelle Fobbs writes:
“For women of color, not resembling a past ballerina may consciously or subconsciously send the message to those around them and even to themselves that they have less potential, will receive less positive attention, training, and opportunities because in this particular area of appearance they do not fit within the established norm.”
But of course, the idea of what and who a ballerina should be can stretch and change. The world of ballet can open up for different types of ballerinas, ones that are shaped differently, ones that are colored differently, ones with their own unique attitudes and rhythms. Especially in a field like ballet that’s purely aesthetic, purely about the visual, purely about how one looks as a dancer.
Ballet’s Color Problem as Colorism
Wherever there’s racism, there’s colorism.
“The ballet world has not been a stranger to the bias of colorism; in fact, the difficulties that a black ballerina already faces in finding a place at a ballet company are exacerbated by darker skin…. [T]here are still dance instructors who believe that darker skin tones are less equipped to meet ballet’s requirements.”
Pointing out racism or colorism in ballet does not mean that successful ballerinas who achieve great successes do not absolutely deserve them. It simply means that an equally talented dark skinned ballet dancer may be overlooked for the same opportunities.
Why Misty Copeland Gives Me Hope
Misty Copeland gives me hope that the ballet world could look very different in the future because she’s actively seeking to make a difference. She’s consciously and purposefully taking on her professional opportunities as opportunities to be a role model for other young girls of color and to change the public’s notion of what a ballerina looks like.
Even though Copeland is fair skinned by African American standards, her complexion and her body type are unique in the world of ballet. Her presence and success in that world can open doors for other dancers who do not fit the norm.
But again, Copeland goes above and beyond doing her job. She utilizes her visibility and media attention to push for change.
Photo Credit: Gilda N. Squire