Darian Volkova, Courtesy Shayer

How I Deal with Racist Remarks as a Ballet Dancer of Color

After years of rigorous training, ballet dancers become accustomed to constructive and oftentimes harsh criticism. Being scrutinized is something that comes with the territory.

I myself spent the better half of my high school years in Russia, where political correctness does not get in the way of progress. We were trained to use criticism as fuel to propel us forward. Everything said in class or rehearsal was meant to help better ourselves and not to be taken personally.

But where is the line between helpful advice and offensive language?


As a seasoned dancer of color, I've heard my fair share of (perhaps too many) offensive remarks.

As a young boy I was drawn to the drama and romanticism of the ballet. My mother sought out the best Russian teachers in Philadelphia and eventually I made the move the prestigious Moscow State Academy of Choreography (aka the Bolshoi Ballet Academy). I had the opportunity to perform many virtuosic and romantic roles during my school years. Unfortunately there were many times throughout my training that people would make comments regarding my race.

In one instance, a woman who had watched me perform a variation from Coppélia for a competition asked me if I would consider dancing Ali instead (the slave variation from Le Corsaire), insinuating that it would be a better fit.

Another time, someone asked me if I was thinking of going to a primarily black dance company, listing the few options she thought would fit me, including modern dance companies.

Gabe Stone Shayer leaps easily on a grey backdrop

NY Dance Project, Courtesy Shayer

I like to think that they didn't intend to offend me, but I couldn't help but feel discouraged. After all my training and coaching, after drilling variations and pas de deux, people couldn't see past my skin color enough for them to consider me a classical ballet dancer or a prince.

It's difficult to describe how it feels to work your whole life for one goal, only to be pigeonholed or rejected because of your skin color. Assumptions about dancers of color keep us constantly on guard and asking insecure questions.

Does my casual stance and the way my lips rest make you think I have an attitude? Do the shape of my eyes look too severe to be considered sensitive? Is my hair tame enough in rehearsal to insure that I will look tame on stage? Am I allowed to use my voice to provide my perspective without you feeling threatened? How can I become the artist I want to be if I'm constantly watering myself down to fit in?

There have been numerous occasions where my intent was misinterpreted, and in turn I was told that I was being held back from an opportunity for my "attitude problem." For years, people of color have had to stifle their own progress to be more digestible for a Euro-centric palette.

Young dancers go through so much already. There's body shame, struggles with inadequacy, jealousy, competition, mental and physical stress. To add racism and identity crisis to that plate is an unfair disadvantage.

So what can young dancers do when confronted with discouraging comments?

My advice is to talk to people about it. Ask someone if they think something said to you was offensive. Sure, everyone's feelings are relative to their own experiences but hearing the opinions of others may help you understand other perspectives, and whether there's something that needs to be addressed.

If you're a student in a school with a guidance counselor on site, tell them what's going on. Or speak to your parents and have them help you set up a conversation with the director of your school.

As a member of American Ballet Theatre, some of us rely on the discretion of our HR department. Talking to an impartial judge can help change your environment to a more accepting space. In my personal experience, these conversations can be difficult, but I've learned how to channel my perspective in a productive manner which will hopefully help people in authoritative positions learn how to nurture their dancers instead of putting them down.

We at ABT are very supportive of one another and in times of stress or discouragement, there is always someone to talk to. It always helps to have supportive friends and colleagues. Talk to them about your issues—it will at the very least be a cathartic release.

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After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

Last month, Victoria Morgan announced that she will step down as Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The organization's board of trustees has formed a committee to conduct a national search for her replacement.

Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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