Stereotypes based on skin color hinder expression in ballet

Opinion Column: Essentially Essex

On the cover of the most recent issue of Pointe Magazine are Ashley Murphy, Ebony Williams and Misty Copeland. But what stands out the most about this magazine cover is that these three women are the most well-known black ballet dancers. The year 2014 was a controversial one in the world of ballet, especially in terms of the lack of racial diversity in elite ballet companies. In April, there was a staging of "Swan Lake" at Washington, D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This show featured Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack, another black dancer. "Swan Lake" is known as one of the most “white ballets,” making their accomplishment all the more important. Black dancers are often cast in pieces that require athleticism as opposed to classical lines. Although dance is a pretty standard outlet for many little girls, it is not often thought of as a “money sport.” The high-ticket prices often limit accessibility for disadvantaged audiences, which sometimes singles out racial minorities. 

Within the last decade, many companies have started hiring Hispanic dancers, and this has started to change the racial complexion of many ballet companies like The American Ballet Theatre (ABT), The New York City Ballet (NYCB) and The Washington Ballet (TWB). In 2013, the ABT started a campaign called “Project Plié,” which was aimed to encourage individuals from minority backgrounds to study dance. The campaign worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and 14 of the country’s top ballet troupes.

Social media has also been an important way to start a so-called “trend” of black dancers. The “Black Ballerinas” Tumblr page and the “Brown Girls Do Ballet” Instagram account have both gotten a lot of attention from their photographs featuring diverse ballet dancers. This topic is especially important to me having done ballet myself and not having memories of racially diverse classes, along with the fact that my family is racially diverse. Part of my family is black, and my little cousin has just started trying dance. If she continues to enjoy it as much as I did, I hope that she would have no struggles in being able to do what she loves.

Misty Copeland was named a principal dancer by the ABT, and she became the first black ballerina to get this position. Rightfully so, she wasted no time in using this as a platform to speak to other racially diverse ballerinas. After becoming a principal, she said, “It’s easy for someone who isn’t black or other or who has never experienced racism to dismiss what I’m saying ... But the reason I’m here and I have this voice is because I’m black.” In her memoir, "Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina," she also wrote about how she endured racism in ballet: “There were many people who seemed not to want to see black ballerinas, who thought that our very presence made ballet less authentic, less romantic, less true. The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn't being fully accepted because I was black, that leaders of the company just didn't see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow.”

What I find most interesting about the plight of black ballerinas is the fact that ballet is so skill and technique-based: You can train for years and years, go to a casting, be confident and get rejected for the color of your skin. I don’t think that’s right. What it comes down to is the difference in body type. I have been studying this in a few of my gender studies classes about the racial stereotypes of what a black person's body is made out to look like. Lauren Anderson, the first black woman to reach the rank of principal ballerina with a major American company other than the Dance Theatre of Harlem, said, “When we think of ballerinas, we think of pink, pale and fluffy. We’re not accustomed to thinking of black women’s bodies in this context. We’re accustomed to thinking of black women as athletic and strong. But all ballerinas are athletic, all ballerinas are strong.” The Theatre of Harlem was created by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Mitchell wanted to give children, especially those in Harlem, the chance to learn about dance. It has now grown into a multi-cultural dance institution. “It's important for me to set an example of what a healthy image is, what a ballerina can be — that she doesn't have to be a white woman that’s rail thin,” Copeland said.

These phenomena are shocking: I had no idea race was such a huge barrier in the world of dance. A dancer should be judged on her technique, training and the hours she has put in, not on how her skin looks against a white tutu.

Diana Essex is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in women’s and gender studies. Her column, “Essentially Essex,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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