Celebrate Black History Month: On Pointe

When I was a young girl, I wanted to go to school desperately. I was maybe 2-years-old, perhaps 3, when it became an everyday request. My parents tried to get me into Head Start but unfortunately back in those days the only way you could get into Head Start was to demonstrate need. Long story short, I tested outside of the range to qualify to start school early, the private schools near me did not offer Head Start and the idea of daycare seemed foolish to my father since by that time both of my parents were mostly home. After failing to get me into traditional school they opted to enroll me in dance classes. It wasn’t the school I wanted, but it did appease me enough.

I took ballet and tap for two hours, three times a week, every week in a studio at the heart of downtown Louisville starting out. What was unique about my school was most of the girls in my class were Black, which was rare for the schools in the city. That said, of course all our instructors were White. Having White dance instructors didn't really bother us as it is not uncommon even in largely Black or diverse institutions to have instruction and leadership by White professionals. We genuinely loved our instructors, especially Ms. Nancy. Ms. Nancy was a wonderful instructor who pushed us even as small children to excel. She would tell us that if we wanted to have a future in dance, we had to be so good that we couldn’t be denied the opportunity. What we would soon learn as Black dancers, that Ms. Nancy didn’t expressly say, was that we didn’t have the natural body shape, complexions (especially those of us of darker shades), or the right pedigree to pursue a career in dance, according to many professionals in the industry.

Many of us would soon learn this truth as we got further along and struggled to get into summer programs, buy “nude” stockings and shoes, and have our bodies critiqued as looking “too powerful and not elegant” when we would audition for roles. For me, it was being told I was too curvy, had bad feet and had skin too dark for ballet that ended my desire to dance. Many of my kinder-dance classmates would additionally be told the same and sadly these are not uncommon experiences for dancers of color. Only one of us out of the 20 girls in my kinder-dance class would end up dancing beyond high school. This is only because she bought her own studio, as she too was rejected from many programs based off her look. It’s this discrimination that has ended many a young Black dancer's passion for ballet. Additionally, for those that did make it as dancers, they often find they are limited in moving up, told to powder themselves to appear lighter and or relegated to background roles.

All in the Dance

Ballet in its earliest conception was closely affiliated with the opera and European aristocracy. Ballet has always had a connotation that it was an activity that was only for the elite and cultured, which sadly still exists today. This elitism along with classical art has framed ballet as being seen as an art form that focuses on beauty, perfection and rigid control that has all be encoded to mean whiteness. In comparison, African dance has been seen to be sexualized, vulgar, and undisciplined when in actuality it is one of the harder dance forms to master from my own experience if you have learned ballet as it requires you to be more fluid in transitions.

Ballet has often been behind the racial curve defending Black face and the use of other ethnically problematic depictions as tradition for ballets. There is some arguments that ballet has not moved forward in diversity due to a lack of access to ballet studios, as they aren’t capturing Black dancers early enough. It is true that ballet is expensive but also there have been very few Black dancers for younger generations to emulate to see themselves as ballet dancers. Yet if we are honest it is ballet’s desire for a homogenous look and how that desire is welded by ballet masters who often have contracts that are far more generous that those of dancers that is the real issue. However, like many institutions last year, ballet is being put under the microscope to finally live up to the mission statements and policies that have been introduced over the last 6-7 years to be more inclusive and diverse.

Black Swans

That said, there have been many Black dance pioneers and current leaders in dance that have opened doors for future Black dancers. These are some of the women who have lead the way:

So How Do We Fix What is Wrong with Ballet?

Consider supporting free or low-cost ballet education for all ages, even going as far as buying shoes. Support studios and companies that hire more Black dance masters and teachers for pre-professional training. That also means supporting ballets with our dollars that have diverse casts and principal dancers. If you have a child in dance, or you are considering dance for yourself, push back against instructors that force dancers to conform to body types that are not natural for them or to change elements of their skin tone with makeup to fit a “traditional” aesthetic. We should promote all dancers no matter what color they are and end the stereotyping for roles.

Dance is a beautiful form of physical expression that should be for everyone. Ballet should not just be for those who are rich, slim, short and White. We must learn to let go of the idea of uniformity and see people for who they are and what they can do. For in truth there is NO ideal body for dance.


Black Ballet

Life in Motion An Unlikely Ballerina, book cover
Bunheads, book cover
Firebird : Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows A Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird, book cover
Ballerina Body Dancing and Eating Your Way to A Lighter, Stronger, and More Graceful You, book cover
Trailblazer The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, book cover
Alvin Ailey A Life in Dance, book cover
My Story, My Dance Robert Battle's Journey to Alvin Ailey, book cover
Elements of Classical Ballet Technique as Practiced in the School of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, book cover