Getty Images

How Dance Students Can Confront Racism and Implicit Bias in the Studio

It is vital for BIPOC dancers to feel that the studio setting, physical or virtual, is safe and inclusive. Dance teachers and studio owners have most of the power when it comes to creating that environment, but students are not powerless. Master ballet teacher Preston Miller, known as The Dance Artist Coach, and jazz teacher Hollie Wright share how they've personally navigated racism within the dance studio, and what students can do if they experience or witness racially-driven interactions.


Ballet's Unfair Biases

For BIPOC dancers in the ballet world, in particular, these kinds of interactions are all too common. Many young Black ballerinas dream of joining the same classical companies as their white counterparts, but are faced with the unfair reality that the path isn't equally set. Frequently, they're pushed to consider non-ballet dance options. "I regularly have to hold uncomfortable conversations with my students of color," Miller says. "If you are ever in a predicament where you feel resistance in a classical ballet setting due to the color of your skin, speak from your perspective exclusively and express how you feel. You may not change your director's beliefs, but you will change their thought process."

Miller has also heard instructors label Black students as technically inadequate for the ballet world solely based on their body type. In these situations, again, open communication is key. "I always encourage students to talk with their directors if they feel held back in their growth because of their skin color," says Miller. "When you feel like you're being overlooked for roles you can execute, talk to your director about it. And if they don't want to talk about how you feel racially disadvantaged, they may not be the teacher for you. Find a studio or teacher where your voice is valued."

Miller sits backwards on a chair, his arms folded, in a dance studio

Preston Miller in the studio (courtesy Miller)

Hair and Dress Codes

Natural hair can also be a source of dance-studio tension. Halfway through class, Wright always encourages students to take their hair down to promote individuality. During one of her classes, she witnessed one Black student get teary and uncomfortable as white students swarmed to touch her hair. "I've seen this happen multiple times," shares Wright. "If you're ever in that type of situation, you have to speak up and let your peers know that it makes you extremely uncomfortable. Usually they don't mean any harm—they just don't know how it feels."

Miller has also seen Black students feel uncomfortable when required to wear pink tights and shoes instead of options that match their skin tones. "I believe that all students of color should be able to wear brown ballet shoes and tights," Miller says. He suggests pointing out to your teacher that doing so will actually help your technique: "It completes the line," he says. "If students can't wear tights and shoes that match their skin, they have to work twice as hard to find their own alignment in the mirror."

Finding Allies and Using Your Voice

Since both Wright and Miller teach diverse student bodies, they've laid out steps young dancers can take to address race-based issues and help prevent them from continuing. Miller emphasizes the need for BIPOC dancers to find allies in the studio space. "If you, as a young Black student, need to talk about a racial occurrence, see who's in your friend circle to give you support," he says. "Those conversations are tough, and you shouldn't have them alone. Bring a friend or a parent."

Hollie Wright (courtesy Wright)

Wright expressed the importance of students speaking up if they witness something wrong. "If you hear something, step up and say something," she says. "You know deep down when something is wrong. Don't be afraid to use your voice. Be aware of your surroundings and stay in tune with what's going on." That advice is especially important for white students: Though the goal is for BIPOC dancers to feel comfortable speaking up if they've experienced an inappropriate interaction, the responsibility shouldn't rest solely on them. "Young dancers should recognize their privilege, whether it's their skin color, age, or level, and use it to speak out against racism in their studio," Miller says.

Difficult Truths

It is also important to have frank conversations about the inequity that still pervades the professional dance world. "There is a harsh reality that dancers of color can't give anyone a reason to not hire them," says Wright. Being late, wearing the wrong outfit, or having the wrong tone can easily get BIPOC dancers labeled as difficult to work with. Each semester, Wright holds a mock audition to prepare her students for that unjust environment.

Wright encourages her Black students to confront these unfair truths head on, encouraging them to remember their beauty and value. Miller has them reframe having to be "twice as good" as not a moment of defeat, but a purpose that will make them unstoppable.

Both teachers agree that the best way to change your surroundings and move your peers into a space that glorifies diversity and equity is to use your voice to call attention to what you're observing. Once we start to prioritize empathy and become more aware of injustice, we can start to build a dance environment that represents, empowers, and celebrates all dancers, regardless of the color of their skin.

Latest Posts


James Barkley, Courtesy Dance for Change

Take Class From Celebrated Black Dancers and Raise Money for the NAACP Through Dance for Change

Since the nationwide fight against racial inequality took center stage in May, organizations across the dance world have been looking for meaningful ways to show their support, rather than fall back on empty social media signifiers. July 10-11, Diamante Ballet Dancewear is taking action with Dance for Change, a two-day event dedicated to fundraising for the NAACP, and amplifying the voices of Black professional dancers.

Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Vikki Sloviter

Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

This is Pointe's Summer 2020 cover story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

Just days before the world shuttered under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, and the curtain came down indefinitely on dance companies everywhere, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Sydney Dolan debuted Gamzatti in La Bayadère with captivating ease. Her jumps soared, her technique was sound, and her cheeky smile paired with exquisite port de bras was beguiling. Though she didn't know the company would soon cancel the remainder of its season, her beautiful performance acted as a kind of send-off into the unknown.

Dolan's career could be described in one word: charmed. At just 19 years old, she's flown through the ranks at PAB, debuted a long list of roles, won a Princess Grace Award and been named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch." Yet it's her challenges that have shaped not only her training but her outlook, giving her a solid foundation for becoming one of Pennsylvania Ballet's rising stars.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Courtesy de Roos

SAB Student Founds Dancewear Nonprofit to Help Others in Need

When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

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.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"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."

Editors' Picks