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


Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

Louisville Ballet in Andrea Schermoly's Rite of Spring. Sam English, Courtesy Louisville Ballet.

Inside Andrea Schermoly’s Arctic "Rite of Spring" at Louisville Ballet

South African–born choreographer Andrea Schermoly is no stranger to challenges, and she's often on the move. Among an extensive portfolio of productions created for companies worldwide, she has also tackled reimaginings of Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring and Judith as one of three artists in residence at Louisville Ballet.

Schermoly is also no stranger to film, having created a digital short called In Passing for the Ashley Bouder Project in 2015. But her most recent film project for Louisville Ballet, a new version of the iconic Rite of Spring, breaks ground—or, rather, ice—with its fresh, arctic take on the Stravinsky masterwork.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Tanya Howard in rehearsal Trase Pa. Photo by Karolina Kuras, Courtesy of NBoC.

8 Virtual Dance Performances to Watch in May

As we push into May, the ballet world presents another lineup of exciting digital performances. We've rounded up a few of the season finales, collaborations and special programs coming up this month. Check them out below!

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks