Naturally, all ethnic minorities face adversity in any industry, but these trials seem particularly cut-throat in the world of dance, and, noticeably, appear to disproportionately affect black dancers in ballet- whether through racial stereotyping, biased casting, or the ruthless scrutiny of any dancer’s appearance, which is especially vicious for anyone who doesn’t fit euro-centric beauty standards and norms.
Raven Wilkinson is a now-retired ballerina who experienced some of the most extreme prejudice that the business can offer. In the mid-1950s, when Wilkinson danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, she and her managers were frequently forced to hide her race by arriving in secret to whites-only hotels as she toured, and by painting her face white for the majority of her stage appearances. However, in Atlanta in ’57, when the south was still brutally segregated, she was asked outright about her ethnicity by hotel staff and subsequently sent away to a ‘coloured’ motel in a ‘coloured’ taxi. During the same tour, members of the Ku Klux Klan interrupted her performance in Montgomery shouting racial slurs and threats, leading the company’s director Sergei Denham to ban her from travelling with the company in certain areas. Raven Wilkinson never attained the fame that she perhaps deserved after being advised to quit dancing, presumably in part for her own physical safety; but she served as an inspiration, role model, and mentor to many black ballerinas of every age.
I ardently hope that we’ve moved on slightly from 1950’s Alabama, but subtler forms of bias are still alive and high-kicking. Nia Sioux Frazier, the most consistent cast member of the reality show Dance Moms and the only non-white dancer for six out of seven seasons, has frequently vocalised her struggles as a young dancer in a predominantly white studio. She cites feeling ‘frustrated’ at ‘those little things that you don’t even think about’ from a young age like having to buy different tights or not being able to put her hair up the way the rest of her team could. Her ex-dance teacher Abby Lee Miller was adamant that Frazier’s race would benefit her, stating that ‘Nia is African American and I’m trying to teach her different ethnic dances so that when a casting call says ‘ethnic’, she can do all of the dances correctly. [Frazier’s Mother] wants her daughter to be like every other little girl. Nia has am advantage over everybody else- she can play many different ethnicities- different is good. And yet her mom wants her to be like [her white classmates]’ The obvious question is, why more than one ethnicity? Frazier’s casting ranged from a Native American tribal leader to a Bollywood dancer to a slave on multiple occasions, provoking criticism towards her childhood coach Miller for generalising these very different identities and cultures into a flippant and ill-considered ‘not white’ genre. As well as this, her mother often disapproved of costumes that she felt were a caricature of Frazier’s identity, disliking the stereotypes associated with the numerous afro wigs and animal prints.
It would be, quite frankly, a crime to write about racism in dance with no reference to Misty Copeland, both because of her stand-alone achievements in ballet (amongst other styles), but also, more pertinently, thanks to her activism and initiatives to bring ballet to underprivileged communities in the USA like the one she grew up in. Her childhood was turbulent in most aspects, ranging from financial troubles, to the instable nature of her father figures, and her early teens even featured a court case attempting to emancipate her in order to live with her dance teacher and not her Mother and siblings. Despite these numerous setbacks that inhibited the rigorous training necessary for a young ballet dancer, Copeland became the first African-American principal ballerina in American Ballet Theatre (arguably the most prestigious company in the US). Early in her career, her mentors were quick to ascribe rejection from ballet companies that traditionally welcome dancers of the teenage Copeland’s physique and skill-set (such as the New York City Ballet) to racial discrimination. Once she had established herself, though, she was still constantly marked as different. She was told by members of her company that she ‘didn’t fit in with her brown skin, especially in a ballet like Swan Lake’. Swan Lake in one of several in a category dubbed ‘white ballets’, also including Giselle, La Bayadere, Sylvia, et cetera. An entire genre of ballets that typically exclude dancers of colour from at least one act, or require them to coat themselves in white makeup which for some unknown reason is a necessity to play ethereal or supernatural roles, just as Raven Wilkinson did. These continuous slights eventually spurred Copeland into speaking out- she records in her memoir: ‘I was playing the part of Puss in Boots in Sleeping Beauty. The makeup person was standing at the ready with her container of powder to turn my face white. I looked at her. ‘I don’t understand why the cats have to be white,’ I said defiantly. ‘I want to be a brown cat.’ And so I was.’ Whilst Copeland has clearly made strides speaking out for black dancers it is somewhat concerning that the whitewashing make-up practises of last century are still dogmatic today, and apparently remain unaddressed by the directors of mainstream companies, still being continued through unquestioning make-up artists.
Dutch National Ballet soloist Michaela De Prince didn’t suffer the same socioeconomic hardships as Misty Copeland, having been brought up in a middle class family in Philadelphia but her early childhood was incredibly difficult: being adopted from a children’s home in war-torn Sierra Leone where she and her adopted sister were consistently abused (Mia for being left-handed and Michaela for having the skin condition vitiligo). In her autobiography, De Prince’s experiences concerning racial stereotypes resemble Frazier’s to an extent- she remarks that ‘often, upon learning that I am a dancer, someone will ask me ‘what kind of dancing do you do… hip hop?’. This makes my ballerina friends laugh. We all look alike: lean, long-legged, hair in buns, and because of the rotation in our hips, our feet point out like ducks’. Why are they presumed to be ballerinas, but I am presumed to be a hip hop artist?’. It’s already clear that professional ballet it a massively white industry, but De Prince highlights the instinctive conclusions that people who know nothing of the long-term prejudice of dance also draw, showing that the problem is not only the biases of directors and authorities in the business, but general public perceptions as well. Furthermore, De Prince has described a ballet teacher of hers advising her mother that ‘we don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls. They all end up getting fat, with big boobs’ This is another example of discrimination, which again was enacted by someone in a fairly low position of authority. This problem is truly not on the shoulders (or at least, not entirely) of the high-ranking casting/creative directors in top dance companies, but perpetuated through the judgements of many everyday people- the kind that most dancers will encounter at some point in their career.
To conclude, although company executives can be blamed to an extent for the ongoing discrimination in the Dance industry, accountability should also fall on the hoards of lower down influences on dancers, whether it be a childhood teacher (in the cases of both Nia Sioux Frazier and Michaela De Prince), a make-up artist, or simply a member of the public. However, I would hope that the impact on dancers of bigoted movements with terrorist histories (like, say, the KKK) have been largely eradicated. Rather a low bar, no? An extra note: this article doesn’t acknowledge the plethora of other inspirational and talented black dancers like Lauren Anderson, Tai Jiminez, Carlos Acosta, Aesha Ash, Arthur Mitchell, Buddy Bradley, Pearl Primus, Alvin Ailey, Jaxon Willard and Katherine Dunham, many of whom were equally resilient and revolutionary in their own ways.