New York City Ballet soloist Daniel Applebaum

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

NYCB Soloist Daniel Applebaum Shares the Importance of “What’s the Tea?,” a New YouTube Series Interviewing Ballet Dancers of Asian Descent

Sitting in my living room last month being interviewed for the YouTube series "What's the Tea?," I talked about my subconscious desire to "pass" as Caucasian, a truth I'd never wanted to admit to myself. I was surprised by how easy it was to be honest with New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, which produced the series. Founded in 2017, FBY is an organization committed to ending offensive stereotypes of Asians in ballet. With "What's the Tea?," Pazcoguin and FBY co-founder Phil Chan celebrated May's Asian Pacific Heritage Month by interviewing 31 ballet dancers of Asian descent. Though Pazcoguin and I have been close colleagues at NYCB for many years, we'd never dug deeply into our shared experiences before. As she gently pushed me to discuss navigating tense work situations and my love of Japanese cooking, I unwittingly began the difficult but essential process of unpacking what it means to be Asian; not only in ballet, but in every aspect of my life.

Applebaum, in black pants, sneakers and a yellow t shirt, guides Stanley with his arm, as Stanley leans into a backbend in jeans and white sneakers.

Daniel Applebaum with Taylor Stanley in Justin Peck's Times Are Raching

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

My realization that I had spent much of my early career hoping to be "white enough to succeed" coincided with the greatest civil rights movement of my generation, the worldwide outrage and public protests against systemic racial injustice. While I bristle when confronting my own shortcomings in processing what it means to be a gay, Asian man, I am also aware that much more urgent conversations on Black lives and police brutality are front and center. My desire to pass is an act of complicity in a system that prizes whiteness. I saw being Asian as a liability. Wanting people to misidentify my race speaks directly to a privilege most BIPOC do not have. Chan realizes the debt FBY owes to Black civil rights activists, reminding me that "we wouldn't be having this conversation [about Asian representation in ballet] without Black advocacy. Without Arthur Mitchell, people wouldn't be paying attention to us or taking us seriously," he says. Pazcoguin pointed out that "there is intersectionality to [FBY's] work. We are a small tile in the greater mosaic of change.

I am the son of a first-generation Japanese woman, and was raised to be proud of my heritage. My mother and father (who is white) instilled in me a deep respect for Japanese culture that I unquestioningly cherished until early adolescence. It was around then, as I was getting more serious about ballet, that I realized I didn't see any Cavaliers that looked like me. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I was fortunate enough to see ballet companies from around the world on tour. For all this variety there seemed to be little diversity (save for the years when Dance Theatre of Harlem came to perform). Later, critiquing New York City Ballet performances with my friends at the School of American Ballet, it became increasingly clear that dreaming about future roles was a more limited affair for dancers of color. My white peers were comfortable telling Asian or Black dancers that they would never perform a role because of how they looked.

Watching, "What's the Tea?", commonalities begin to emerge: Asian dancers being conditioned to brush off microaggressions and remain quiet; an implicit understanding that our adjacency to whiteness gets us in the room, but not a seat at the table; thinking that positive change could be achieved by working harder. "I have been made to feel, on so many occasions, like I was drumming up more drama than was necessary," Pazcoguin recalls, "and I realized, hearing Noelani [Noelani Pantsastico of Pacific Northwest Ballet] and Lia [Lia Cirio of Boston Ballet] share verbatim things said to them that were also said to me, that there's a pattern here." While these stories and experiences didn't surprise me, I wondered why these acts of aggression, big and small, have gone largely unaddressed. "My biggest takeaway is that the Asian experience in ballet is mostly invisible," says Chan.

By confronting our traumas and realizing that they are, in fact, shared, "What's the Tea?" has given dancers of Asian descent something that has never existed before: a sense of community. As an asian teenanger joining the corps de ballet at NYCB, I was lucky to have former company member Allen Peiffer as a friend and colleague. Allen was the first person in the ballet world who talked to me about his obachan (Japanese grandmother), and experiences shopping at Asian grocery stores. Later on, Anthony Huxley, who is Filipino, joined NYCB and we became close. Going for bubble tea or dim sum were simple activities that allowed for an unspoken understanding of our shared experience. As I look at all the wonderful artists that participated in "What's the Tea," I see brothers and sisters. I see dancers in companies all across America and abroad that have had to advocate for their brilliant artistry in order to forge a path that had not been laid out for us.

Applebaum jumps in the air in a green velvet vest against a green painted backdrop

Daniel Applebaum in George Balanchine's "Emeralds"

Erin Baiano, Courtesy NYCB

For all of the series's virtues, Chan and Pazcoguin realize that this iteration of "What's the Tea?" has its failings. "I don't think we got the diversity of Asian experiences that we would have liked," Chan states. "We did not get any South Asian voices. There seems to be less representation of South Asians in ballet in America, but we should have done better." Pazcoguin adds that, "we want to be able to give those voices a platform because they're part of this massive umbrella that is Asianness."

Watching the interviews, I was struck by how different everyone looks; not just in terms of facial features, but in terms of energy and physicality. We're not all the same. Every man isn't a tiny virtuoso, and every woman isn't a wilting flower. I hope for a future where this variety can exist within a single company alongside a diverse representation of dancers from all backgrounds. Pazcoguin hopes this platform, "gives [young Asian dancers] a plethora of options from which to choose a role model, and see that they are welcome into the world of ballet." Now is the time for the ballet community to let us know we are all welcome.

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De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

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"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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