Ballet Stars

Behind Ballet's Diversity Problem

Ballet Memphis dancers in Steven McMahon's Being Here With Other People. Photo by Brandon Dill.

Ballet has a lily-white reputation.

The great “ballet blanc" works glorify white swans, white shades, white wilis and white sylphs. Still, in 2014, balletgoers might expect some progress in racial diversity onstage, especially in the U.S., where populations of color are growing. But comb the rosters of most American companies and you'll find a striking sameness. While a few have established inclusive policies in training and hiring, they are the minority. There is a notable exception—Asian and Asian-American dancers have made real inroads. However, dancers of other ethnic backgrounds continue to face challenges, especially women.

Many factors contribute to ballet's lack of diversity: economic inequality—ballet training is notoriously expensive; a lack of role models for aspiring dancers to emulate; a failure on the part of schools and companies to provide support for young dancers of color on the uphill road to professional success. And another factor looms large in the discussion: Many believe a thread of racism still runs through the ballet world. “There are people who define ballet in a very specific and historic sense and think it should look like the Mariinsky in 1950," says American Ballet Theatre executive director Rachel Moore, who last year launched the company's Project Plié, an initiative to support the training of ballet students from underrepresented communities.


However, prejudice has many facets. “People still have not embraced the notion of diversity within this art form because it's always been seen as an exclusive art form," says Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem, which has been carrying the torch for racial inclusion for 45 years. “It's not only been exclusive of people of color—it's been very class-oriented."

And, of course, there's the canard about black bodies appearing unsuitable for ballet. “I've heard from the mouths of dance professionals that black dancers categorically cannot become ballet dancers because they don't have the right body," says Moore. “I think that is an incredibly unfortunate myth that still exists."



Racial demographics in the U.S. have changed dramatically in the past three decades. Hispanics, who made up just 6.45 percent of the population in 1980, made up 16.3 percent by 2010. The African-American population has increased from 11.52 percent to 12.6 percent; whites are expected to no longer make up a majority by 2043. Dorothy Gunther Pugh, the artistic director of Ballet Memphis, long anticipated this change. “I made this a priority years ago—creating a ballet company committed to representing what more and more of America looks like," she says. “I love the beauty and esthetic of ballet, but I think it's been awfully rigid."

Rachel Moore. Photo Courtesy ABT.

Of Ballet Memphis' 19 dancers, 4 are black, 2 are Asian, 11 are white and 2 are Hispanic. Pugh has adopted a philosophy that Ballet Memphis' artists are “citizen/dancers," serving their community whether onstage, in a community center or by teaching in the school. The company's outreach to Memphis' underserved communities has been a core component of this approach. “We're rethinking the most effective ways to engage with the community," says Pugh. “This 'helicopter drop' of going to a school and then leaving has a lot of limitations in terms of effectiveness. So we're trying to develop partnerships with community centers. We've given our dancers some training in how to work with children, to meet them where they are and not say, 'I'm a ballerina floating down from the sky.' "

Twenty years ago, Rachel Moore ran Project STEP, an outreach program of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that went into every Boston public school kindergarten, identified talented children of color and gave them high-quality musical training from ages 5 to 18 in hopes of getting them into major conservatories—a “grow your own" strategy. Last year, Moore initiated ABT's Project Plié, which mirrors Project STEP by targeting African-Americans, Native Americans, Indian-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Arab-Americans, with the goal to nurture talented dancers in those communities. (Cubans, at least at ABT, have been well represented due to their rich ballet tradition.)

Project Plié takes a multi-pronged approach to mitigating the diversity problem. It grants merit-based training scholarships to talented children of color; it provides teacher training scholarships to teachers of color; it grants intern scholarships to young arts administrators of color (“It should be diverse not only onstage but backstage," says Moore); it partners with other ballet companies (like Nashville Ballet; see sidebar) to determine effective outreach tactics; and it has established a partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Some companies have taken a lower-key approach. Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's artistic director, says his viewpoint on racial issues stems from his Australian background and its affinity with Asian cultures. Houston Ballet has 10 Asian dancers out of a company of 47. He seems less concerned with a lack of black dancers in his company (there are only two—both male corps dancers, and Houston's population is 23.7 percent black) than in trying to recruit Hispanics, who make up 43.8 percent of Houston's population. “There's definitely a need to reach out, especially to the Hispanic community," says Welch. “I just don't know how to do it. Even with more accessibility, I think there's a sense that ballet is elitist in communities that aren't as affluent."

Many, Welch included, have placed all bets on ABT soloist Misty Copeland, the author of Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, and on her potential to become the first black female principal dancer in ABT's pantheon of stars. “Misty's such an extraordinary face of ballet, beautiful and smart," says Welch. “She's the one that could turn this around for everyone."

“I'll go on record as saying I think that Misty should be promoted to principal dancer, but it's not for me to say," says DTH's Johnson. “It really is up to the artistic director to make that choice." Nevertheless, it points to a larger issue. “We're in that place where you have all your hopes pinned on Misty Copeland," she adds. “There should be 15 Misty Copelands in our schools ready to step up. When I look across the country, I see fine training going on, but I'm not seeing that level of advanced 16- or 17-year-old dancers of color."

One key could be rethinking what ballet means to communities. Diversity training in ballet schools, Johnson points out, could help teachers and students understand the importance of inclusion. Perhaps more fundamentally, ballet companies need to lose their image as status symbols drawing wealthy local patrons eager to show off their cultural credentials. Today's younger generation, Johnson believes, craves an updated version of ballet. “If you're going to the ballet, you want to see something that has meaning to you, not something harking back to another culture," she says. “I think we need to look at ballet that is a living art form expressing a contemporary vision of beauty." She believes this will foster more interest and engagement from underrepresented communities.

But Johnson is surprisingly optimistic about the future for ballet dancers of color. “I think five years from now, we won't be talking about this anymore," she says. “When it happens, it's going to happen very fast."


Nashville Ballet's Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger in Firebird. Photo by Marianne Leach, Courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Teaming Up with Project Plié

Nashville Ballet is one of the latest companies to sign on for Project Plié, ABT's initiative to increase diversity in ballet schools and companies nationwide. “Nashville is changing," says Paul Vasterling, artistic director and CEO. “Our goal down the road is to have a company that looks like the community." Project Plié will augment Nashville Ballet's current outreach efforts, which already show results at the school's lowest levels. Nashville Ballet partners with six public elementary schools to bring in ballet performances and workshops, and also offers scholarships to the company's affiliated school.

Vasterling was looking for ways to expand his outreach program when Nashville Ballet's African-American ballerina, Kayla Rowser, approached him about Project Plié. He signed up immediately. The company will collaborate with local Boys & Girls Clubs of America and talk with other Project Plié participants about outreach that works in their respective communities. “The first step is the sharing of knowledge," says Vasterling. As of now, seven companies in addition to Nashville Ballet (Ballet Austin, Ballet Memphis, Ballet San Jose, Cincinnati Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Orlando Ballet and Richmond Ballet) are partnering with ABT to develop Project Plié's goals.

At Nashville Ballet, Vasterling says that Rowser will continue to play an important role. “It's key for children of different ethnicities to see themselves onstage," says Vasterling. “I've seen it, like when two little girls of color were sitting in front of me at a performance. They were wiggling and talking, as children do, until Kayla came out. Then they stopped, mesmerized. They connected to her. They could see themselves." —Julie Diana

Show Comments ()
Ballet Training
Anna Greenberg of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, photographed by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

All dancers have their go-to tension area: shoulders that creep up towards the ears, a hand that becomes a claw, or feet and ankles that grip. Yet "Just relax" can be the hardest correction to apply. We spoke with four teachers for their tips on releasing tension throughout the body—and how it's all connected.

The Face

A dancer's face is a frequent tension trouble spot, as eyebrows lift or furrow, jaws clench and tongues peek out. Hilary Cartwright, international guest teacher and creator of Yoga Narada, notices that, for many students, "all the tension goes into the face in their effort to achieve and please their teacher." Similarly, Seattle-based ballet instructor Stephanie Saland observes that dancers "demonstrate" their focus with their face instead of actually being attentive. "Does 'focus' mean bug your eyes and shove your chin forward to show interest, enthusiasm, volition?" she asks. "Or can you just be present and take the information in?"

Cartwright recommends taking a moment to "turn it around" and find your inner smile. "When you're feeling tense, think of something—a smiley face, your dog or cat—that brings back reality a little bit. Remember the good things in the rest of your life." If your inner smile turns into an outward one, even better. Smiling is a simple way to alleviate tension in your face and convey your joy of dancing.

Saland suggests visualizing a mask that's painted onto your face dripping off "almost in puddles down the front of your body." This relaxes facial tension and sends your focus inward. Remember that in class, sometimes, you can just make the effort without feeling that you have to project out.

News
Ballet Austin's Aara Krumpe in The Firebird. After 20 years, this is Krumpe's final season with the company. Photo by Tony Spielberg, Courtesy Ballet Austin.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has helped spotlight sexual harassment, as well as verbal and emotional abuse, in the ballet industry. Most recently, a lawsuit filed by Alexandra Waterbury against New York City Ballet and principal dancer Chase Finlay, who has since resigned, revealed particularly chilling behavior. Earlier this week, we posted an article that struck a nerve with our audience. We've received some heated responses about the story's prompt and tone. We hear you, and we want to take this opportunity to give you a voice to address concerns and ask questions about recent claims of abuse in the ballet world.

Dancers, students and dance parents: how have these revelations shaped your view of the dance industry, and what worries you most? What changes do you want to see from leadership to address them? Professional dancers, what advice or insight would you give students and those in their early career about what to expect in the professional world?

We want to hear from you. Please feel free to comment or to send your thoughts to abrandt@dancemedia.com.

News
Ramasar and Catazaro, via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Nevada Ballet Theatre. Still Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's first stop: Nevada Ballet Theatre. She touches base with company dancer Caroline MacDonald, and academy director Anna Lantz. Stay tuned for more!

Keep reading... Show less
Editors' List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Tricia Albertson kisses Didier Bramaz after finding the perfect hat in The Concert. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet.

Tricia Albertson, as told to Gavin Larsen.

I like to make people laugh, so I was excited to be cast as the Mad Ballerina in Jerome Robbins' The Concert. But the character herself didn't feel like me. She's so bubbly and excited, and I'm a bit more pensive (when it comes to ballet, at least). I didn't want her to come across as stupid—she's still thoughtful. I guess you could say she's flighty, but it's just that she's so excited about the music at the concert that everything else is a blur to her.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
A portrait of Fanny Elssler, Courtesy Olga Smoak.

This Thursday, we're throwing it all the way back to Fanny Elssler, one of the most famous ballerinas of the Romantic period. Elssler may have graced stages far before the age of reality TV and Instagram, but her story is anything but dry. Last week, the Historic New Orleans Collection put on a symposium on the history of dance in New Orleans, of which Elssler played a pivotal role. We spoke with dance historian Olga Smoak to find out more about why this ballerina is still so exciting... nearly 200 years later.

But first, watch a recreation of Elssler's famous "La Cachucha," which she performed in New Orleans in 1841, danced by Rebecca Allen at the HNOC last week. Note the extreme tilts of the torso; they're part of what made Elssler such a captivating dancer in her day.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Thinkstock

I've noticed that my progress has plateaued. Class starts out pretty well, but once we get to center, it seems like I am not improving whatsoever. Help! —Sade

Keep reading... Show less
Yuli looks like the ballet biopic of our dreams. Screenshot via YouTube

We admit it. We're picky about dance movies. They don't always represent our beloved art form accurately, or use real dancers to play the main roles.

But we just watched the first trailer for the new Carlos Acosta biopic, Yuli, and we're kinda speechless:

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Katherine Williams as Myrtha. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

With a large exhale, Katherine Williams steps into a series of arabesque chugs, as if the force of her breath is propelling her forward. "Big step out, big," coaxes ballet mistress Irina Kolpakova, watching from the front of a small studio at American Ballet Theatre in May. It's a big step indeed for Williams—after 10 years in the corps de ballet, the 29-year-old is preparing for her debut as Myrtha in ABT's production of Giselle, her very first principal role. One month after the premiere, Williams was promoted to soloist.

"Myrtha is the hardest thing I've ever done," Williams admits. "By the end you feel like you're going to throw up. I was using my breath as much as I could to help me get through it."

While Williams is tall and a natural jumper, she was surprised when artistic director Kevin McKenzie cast her in such a fierce and powerful role. "Generally they give me the happy peasant girl, something softer," she says. "I think it was a leap of faith for Kevin to allow me to embrace a totally different side of myself."

Keep reading... Show less
Trending
Misty Copeland models her fall collection for Under Armour. Photo courtesy of Under Armour.

Fall is fast approaching, and American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland has your back-to-dance wardrobe (and beyond) covered. The Under Armour spokesmodel debuted her Fall 2018 Misty Copeland Signature Collection earlier this week, playing off her first collection with another set of looks that work just as well in the studio as they do hanging out with friends.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!