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Building Diversity in Ballet: Black Swans Are Still Too Rare

September 23, 2010 · By Virginia Johnson · 16 Comments

  This summer’s Ballet Across America programming at John F. Kennedy Center for the
  Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was a chance to enjoy the high standard of dancing
  currently on view in large and small cities in this country. It was also a reminder that in
  America, with the exception of a few male dancers, our ballet companies remain
  unrelievedly white. In reviews, blogs and at the Dance/USA conference that coincided
  with the June 2010 series, the question again resounded, ”Where are the black swans?”

 Dance critic Gia Kourlas posed the question two years ago in an article of that name in The New York
 Times
. As an African American, finding a place in ballet has been my preoccupation ever since I was eight and The Royal Ballet’s production of Swan Lake stole my heart.

Fifty-odd years later, it stings that the question persists. Clearly the answer is neither simple nor easy to accomplish. Where once the problem may have been at the top—administrators, directors and boards of American companies—in a growing number of companies, that is no longer true. Now that I am artistic director at Dance Theatre of Harlem, I get an increasing number of calls from colleagues in search of dancers of color. They are looking for trained, ready-to-hire individuals and complain to me that in auditions that draw hundreds, they see only a handful of blacks. We reap what has been sewn. 

As a nation, we perpetuate separate white and black cultural identities. There are positive as well as negative aspects to the practice, but drawing that line means that it shouldn’t be surprising that there are few blacks on the ballet stage as there are also few blacks in the audience. We’ll only have more black swans when we—whites and blacks—let go of the notion that in the cultural divide, ballet belongs to one side. 

That sense of territorial trespass leads to a more practical consideration, the fact that the dancer who succeeds in training to the high level of proficiency needed to qualify for a company contract is more like one in a thousand than even one in a hundred. To see the diversity in ballet companies that many now desire, we need to increase the number of African Americans—girls in particular—who study seriously past the age of 12.

Plenty of recognition is given to the long-term dedication that goes into preparing for a professional career, but for parents, too, it is a 10-to-15-year commitment. Along with a belief in the value of exposure to ballet as an art form, tuition costs—not to mention pointe shoes and other supplies—mean that, with few exceptions, the majority of ballet dancers—black and white—come from families that have a margin of disposable income. And while many successful middle- and upper-class African American parents are happy to send their tiny tots off to ballet class to gain focus, poise and self-discipline, more often the ultimate goal is a professional career in law, medicine or finance rather than in ballet. 

The economics of a career in ballet are not going to change, but finding a way to persuade our most likely candidates among the African American community to send their daughters and sons into our world is an opportunity to highlight the value of this art form to American cultural life. To do so, we will need to banish some preconceptions about what ballet is and where it fits in a vital national arts dialogue.

Thanks to forward-thinking programming in some communities across the nation, a dwindling, aging audience base traditionally drawn to ballet as an elite privilege is being revitalized with young sophisticates who relate to the physicality of the art form but who also want to connect to the content. Whether a ballet tells a story or engages with dynamic movement, audiences need a compelling reason to want to plunk down the price of admission. Cultural relevance as well as reflections on contemporary values and experience mixed in with our revered classics have the potential to create meaningful, shared experiences regardless of ethnic background.

The power of ballet as an art form is its requirement for the most exacting excellence, sublime artistry, and the highest level of physical accomplishment. For much of American history, convention held that African Americans were incapable of lofty accomplishments such as these. Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, and, of course, Arthur Mitchell, who created and sustained the Dance Theatre of Harlem for 40 years, proved convention wrong. Yet the perception persists—mainly because as a nation we have yet to face the reasoning behind the long-held assumption that we as a people don’t have what it takes.

More than 50 years ago George Balanchine redefined an aesthetic for ballet in America that transformed the art form for the 20th century. Interestingly, his vision was for an American company of black and white dancers. Unfortunately, that aspect of his vision was never realized. Instead, we as a field have become obsessed with a single body-type that is presumed to be predicated by race.

Until that notion dies, no progress can be made. Just as all white people don’t have droopy arches, nor do all black people have “the wrong bodies.” Turnout, epaulement and virtuosity operate the same regardless of the color of one’s skin. Talent, opportunity, and training are what enable excellence.

If we are ready to embrace diversity in ballet in this country, we must not only re-examine long-held assumptions, we need to take action. Here are a few suggestions to begin:

Ballet is not for the faint of heart. It is about aiming for and maintaining the highest standards. Excellence is a human capacity unrestricted by ethnicity.

  1. Embrace diversity by create a welcoming environment for dancers of color—and their parents.
  2. Seek out and nurture talent in and out of the studio over time.
  3. Be proactive in bringing dancers of color into your school environment by reaching out to African American professional and social organizations and encouraging them to send their children to your school.
  4. Utilize the same tactic to diversify your audiences and create educational and social opportunities for intracultural communication.
  5. Old mind-sets die hard. Educate your staff and faculty to build a genuine commitment to diversity. A board member may have access to a cultural diversity officer in his or her corporation to provide guidance.

Ballet is not for the faint of heart. It is about aiming for and maintaining the highest standards. Excellence is a human capacity unrestricted by ethnicity.

Virginia Johnson is Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director, founding member and former principal dancer. During her 28 years as a ballerina with the company, she toured the world performing leading roles in such ballets as Agon, Concerto Barocco, Voluntaries, Creole Giselle, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend, the latter three filmed and broadcast on television (Fall River Legend won a cable ACE award from the Bravo Network). Later choreographic works include ballets created for Goucher College, Dancers Responding to AIDS, the Second Annual Harlem Festival of the Arts, Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center and Marymount Manhattan College, where she was also an adjunct professor. After retiring from performing, she founded Pointe Magazine and was editor-in-chief from 2000-2009. Her honors include a Young Achiever Award from the National Council of Women, the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award, the Washington Performing Arts Society's 2008-2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award. She is a trustee of Dance/USA and serves on the advisory board of Dance/NYC and the artistic advisory board of the New York International Ballet Competition.

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Tags: Commentary · From The Studio · Trustee Spotlight

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anjela // Sep 24, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    This issue has gone on for so long, I hope that it will change, but I also have serious doubts. When I danced ballet (about a 100 years ago) I was very serious and LOVED everything about this type of dance. I have very sweet, and bitter memories because many were not ready to accept a black ballerina. They were good teachers, and racist teachers. You can spend your money and take all the classes you want. But, deep down, there was always a feeling, you wouldn't be seen too many times on stage with them...not professionally, not if you are a (dark skin female). And it was true. I ran into the most ignorant, racist people I have ever met in life. George Balanchine may have wanted a black and white ballet, however, he 's also famous for stating that a ballet dancer's skin should be the color of a peeled apple(ie..light skinned or white) Most famous black ballerinas must be very light skinned like Virginia Johnson, to be accepted, and everyone know this is a FACT in the ballet world. It hurt a lot, and every-time I see a little brown or black girl in a tutu, I remember, and truly, with all my heart, wish they don't suffer with racist rejection in the ballet world, as I did.
  • 2 Toba Singer // Sep 24, 2010 at 2:59 PM

    If it were only just a question of the racist aspect of racism, but there are a million cultural tendrils that persist. Those who are used to winning their rights by struggling for them, who then who have to put that practice aside in the reactionary culture of ballet where frankly, kissing up is the coin of the realm, can take its toll. For those who survive that and are still invisible at casting time, the willingness to work hard and take a back seat until some beneficent individual can no longer ignore you may not outlast the impact of injuries. The audience is your best ally. If they are screaming for you and shower you with adoration and that translates to box office, you may have a fighting chance--a chance one must pursue--but there are no guarantees for anyone in the art and so many A.D.s are imprisoned by their own idee fixes.
  • 3 C L Martin // Sep 24, 2010 at 3:16 PM

    I look forward to the day this shortage of black ballerinas goes away forever. I think most ballet companies do not have a serious concern about the absence of these dancers. They are not missed. Certainly there is not enough concern to make a commitment (this means something other than business as usual) to change this alarming (at least to a distinct minority) state of affairs. Ms. Johnson highlights some very thoughtful and potentially effective remedies, but first there must be a real commitment to change.

    While there is a problem with the limited support among audience members of African descent, until what they see on the stage becomes more accessible, this will be hard to alter. This includes both the dancers and the dance itself (choreography, music, costumes, everything).

    Even today ballet tradition still perpetuates: the occasional ballet in "blackface (!)," comments on anatomy, uniformity, etc., especially in the "white" ballets, and directors and choreographers can still require that corps members must blend in seamlessly in their physical appearance even more than in their dancing. These things can be very difficult for young dancers training, audiences watching, and families supporting. Ballet is already extremely demanding without these additional wrinkles.

    Such an environment can be quite toxic for the younger women; such a workplace could be characterized as hostile for the more established ballerinas who manage to survive the initial gauntlet. Without real commitment to change from within the general ballet community, it will continue to be viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution (as activists were fond of saying in the sixties).

    I applaud Virginia Johnson for her commitment and leadership. I look forward to seeing Dance Theatre of Harlem continue its pathbreaking role under her direction. I hope many other ballet professionals will recognize her courage, foresight, and exemplary advice while following in those footsteps. I want to see a flood of followers acknowledging the DTH leadership, and I am hoping (against hope) that this example will be embraced widely throughout the ballet community. I challenge the ballet world to prove the skeptics wrong!

    In the best tradition of the story ballets, I am officially throwing down the gauntlet.
  • 4 ELENA BARTLEY // Sep 24, 2010 at 6:20 PM

    Great article Virgina......I loved not just the problem but ...that is roght...here is the solution!!!
    Bravo.
  • 5 Jon Jackson // Sep 25, 2010 at 4:59 AM

    I've pondered these kinds of issues for years! You just can't put "Black Dancers" in places who did not fight and maintain passion to be there in the first place! There are and have been wonderful black ballet dancers, male and female in major ballet companies all over the world who have maintained their primary objective! A love for ballet while dancing great work! The issue that a "ballerina" happening to be black, has not evolved toward the leading role in story ballets such as "Swan Lake" is a sidebar that may be becoming politically trite! For the opportunities are there for the "right one" or ones who are consistent and steadfast in their goals. Example: "President Obama"! There "will" be Black Swans! The "right" Black Swans in time! Trust me!
  • 6 Hopeful // Sep 25, 2010 at 9:03 PM

    I sincerely hope that this will one day not be an issue. One can certainly hope. However, one of the things that must also happen is for us to open our eyes past the few larger US ballet companies and what they are doing. There are small and medium size regional companies often overlooked as not good enough by balletomanes who are braving the trail and accepting African American dancers, especially females into their ranks. They are also not limiting roles in the manner you have often heard in the larger companies and in the past. Highlighting these young dancers, most of whom are in their first, second & third year as company members in these smaller companies can help change the thinking and appearance that there are no Black Swans. There are not many for certain. But if one only looks at the larger companies, then you may just be missing a few Black Swans over this year and next.
  • 7 Professor Macklin // Sep 25, 2010 at 9:08 PM

    I look forward to the day this shortage of black ballerinas goes away forever. I think most ballet companies do not have a serious concern about the absence of these dancers. They are not missed. Certainly there is not enough concern to make a commitment (this means something other than business as usual) to change this alarming (at least to a distinct minority) state of affairs. Ms. Johnson highlights some very thoughtful and potentially effective remedies, but first there must be a real commitment to change.

    While there is a problem with the limited support among audience members of African descent, until what they see on the stage becomes more accessible, this will be hard to alter. This includes both the dancers and the dance itself (choreography, music, costumes, everything)

    Even today ballet tradition still perpetuates: the occasional ballet in "blackface (!)," comments on anatomy, uniformity, etc. especially in the "white" ballets, and directors and choreographers can still require that corps members must blend in seamlessly in their physical appearance even more than in their dancing. These things can be very difficult for young dancers training, audiences watching, and families supporting. Ballet is already extremely demanding without these additional wrinkles.

    Such an environment can be quite toxic for the younger women; such a workplace could be characterized as hostile for the more established ballerinas who manage to survive the initial gauntlet. Without real commitment to change from within the general ballet community, it will continue to be viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution (as activists were fond of saying in the sixties).

    I applaud Virginia Johnson for her commitment and leadership. I look forward to seeing Dance Theater of Harlem continue its pathbreaking role under her direction. I hope many other ballet professionals will recognize her courage, foresight, and exemplary advice while following in those footsteps. I want to see a flood of followers acknowledging the DTH leadership, Keeping good thoughts of you and Christina while missing you still on the left coast. Shannon has it right, and some days are just tougher than others. with fondness ...
  • 8 Professor Macklin // Sep 25, 2010 at 9:17 PM

    I am encouraged to see this topic raised, and I agree heartily with the first three posters. I am glad Virginia Johnson had the fortitude to persist in noting and reasserting the continued relevance this problem.

    I am very sorry for the pain and disappointment Anjela suffered, and I only wish it had become a thing of the past. Unfortunately, as both she and Toba note, the problem is still with us. I appreciate the great insight into the both the culture and the physical perils of the ballet world, shown by Singer, who also notes the capricious power of the A.D.s and the potential salvation that can be found in adoring audiences. I find this observation jibes with my own observations. I worry though about how these dancers will even make it onto the large stages in the first place. The audiences must first discover them before becoming the saving grace that keeps them surviving through all these obstacles.

    CL mostly echoes my own sentiments and verbose habits, but begins with such a gloomy perspective I find it disconcerting. The comment that the absent Black Swans are also invisible—they simply are not missed—anticipates the perspective of Jon Jackson, however, quite precisely.

    Respectfully to Jon Jackson, Many of us have also considered these issues for decades. I have personally known several young black FEMALE ballet dancers who lack neither passion, nor talent, nor training, nor dreams. I have heard about the auditions, and the behind-the-back comments few dare say out loud for fear of retaliation, litigation, or, as in this case, simply not wanting to confront the predictable, perdurable skepticism.

    Again, respectfully, while other posters here are saying there is a problem, Mr. Jackson does not believe there is anything transpiring in the ballet community other than a 'trite sidebar'. Where some professional and knowledgeable ballet insiders try to call attention to a notable absence of female dancers of African descent, Mr. Jackson sees wonderful black dancers all over the world. The absence of more blacks seems to be simply a result of their own lack of drive, or excellence, or failure to keep their eyes on the prize. They are not the "right" dancers for the parts or the profession!

    As Ms. Johnson notes in her cogent and persuasive article, ballet demands excellence, and is not for the faint of heart. I also agree it is an extremely competitive world, and, like most very competitive arenas, success is a combination of dedication, timing, preparation, and good fortune. These arenas are never ever pure meritocracies, if only because there are, by definition, more qualified hopefuls than there are opportunities available. This is true for all ballet dancers, and becomes especially daunting when it is further complicated by both heritage and gender.

    "Happening" to be black is a very revealing choice of words. Equally revealing is the fact that male and female black dancers' experiences are considered together. If we learn nothing else, everyone quickly discovers that the fortunes of male and female ballet hopefuls follow two very different paths from the earliest stages in their training through until their retirement.

    I think an important first step would be to acknowledge the problem rather than point the finger at those who have been damaged by this situation. Just as there are still injustices based on discrimination that have not all been solved based on the election of Barak Obama, ballet will continue to lack the Black Swans until a remedy to this absence becomes both a desired and explicit goal.

    When Mr. Jackson asks for my patience that the "right" Black Swans are imminent, please forgive me if this clarion call inspires neither trust nor confidence. Also, as a postscript, where have you found this plethora of black ballerinas in major ballet companies in the United States or worldwide? I cannot remember ever needing more than the fingers of my two hands at any given moment to count these dancers.

    If we are speaking of "ballerinas" in the full sense of the word, especially those promoted through the ranks, I only know of the rare exception of Dance Theatre of Harlem and the few other companies like it. I have not yet seen these stages where the Black Swans flock.

    Thank goodness there are companies like DTH, explicitly founded with a mission to provide the rare ballet opportunities for dancers of color, especially African Americans. I am glad that Mitchell and Shook had the vision to address this in their original mission, and heartened to see Ms. Johnson carrying that mission forward into the 21st Century.

    Please forgive my presumption in weighing in on others who have posted on this thread. I only do this in hopes of furthering discussion and exchange. I would be happy to see more of the same from other posters, and interested to know how my own remarks have been received as well. That is of course, assuming anybody makes it through this long-winded attempt. Maybe CL will make it through
  • 9 MAnn Mosley // Sep 26, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    There is no place that the 'glass ceiling' of racism does not touch. I am not an artist or a dancer, just an ordinary black woman. I am so pained that the girls and women coming behind me will suffer the very same indignities in all walks of life. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
  • 10 B. Z. // Sep 27, 2010 at 7:53 PM

    The problem is that ballet is a visual art, and when the corps dancers do not generally match each other in appearance, the visual art is disrupted. A soloist of a noticably different color could be a harmonious part of the whole if it worked choreographically and dramatically, such as in La Bayadere.
    This is, unfortunately, a continuing intrusion of social politics into art. Ms. Johnson was a memorable Giselle, and it worked well as the production was set in Louisiana. If it had been Moscow, it would have seemed a little off.
    But this also has to do with makeup, and whether one is trying to be naturalistic or artificial as the ballet demands. There is no reason to have a white corps de ballet in La Bayadere. If they are white dancers, they should have body make-up on. The performer should attempt to match the role. That is not racist, that is theater.
    If you want full integration, then you would have to include white or other dancers in all-black shows. So, the question is really whether you want to be faithful to the art or not. "Color-blind" casting is not faithful if the roles are specific in some way.
    If the performers are trained culturally as well as physically, it will help. But there are also physical differences in musculature between many black and white dancers, that affect their shape and line and way of moving. Can that be equalized?
    Dance Theatre of Harlem did a wonderful job this way by taking into account the visual picture, by using beige tights instead of pink.
    It is a tough cultural question, to be sure, but bringing politics into it is not the solution. Fine training with a sense of art is part of the solution, and finer companies with finer productions and finer choreographers is the real solution. Ballet has been in decline for a long time and will continue if there is not more esthetic, literate training, and not only physical training.
  • 11 Jon Jackson // Oct 1, 2010 at 6:00 PM

    Ballet began in France. That's why all the terms regarding the technique are in the French language. King Louis XIV formed the very first school of ballet "officially". "The Paris Opera Ballet". Still one of the best ballet companies the world over. At first ballet was only for and danced by men. Kings and noblemen. Women started to dance it during the late 1600's. Ballet eventually migrated to Russia around 1850. That's where "master choreographer" "Marius Petipa" and "master composer" "Peter Tchaikovsky" start to come in with their collaborative creations of "Swan Lake", "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker". The Russian Ballet School was also formed and began to train the greatest ballet dancers on earth.

    Wanting more artistic liberation, a number of Russian dancers formed "Ballets Russes". Touring America and Europe with it during the 1900's. Thus, a number of Russian dancers and choreographers found and began to call America "their home". The master "George Balanchine" being one of them, eventually goes on to form the New York City Ballet.

    Now when these Ballet experts came to America with their dances, some by or closely patterned after "Marius Petipa" regarding "Swan Lake" and his others works, they had no idea that one day people of all races, nationalities and hues would eventually become adept at their art form too. To the point where their new patron art following, black and white, would want in on their artistic creative pie equally! That by getting in equally, it would elevate their personal artistic goals regarding this beautiful dance form called ballet.

    However, from the Russian and European's standpoint, it couldn't always "be" equal as the new or present following would like because their initial dances were not created that way from the start! Culturally or artistically.
    Their dances such as "Swan Lake" were created during a time "long, long ago" in a far off land of caucasian cultured ballet pioneers and audiences! Descending from the founding King, their noblemen, their stories of indigenous folklore, creations and fairytale. They did not set out to "exclude" anyone from ballet or "Swan Lake". For they honestly did not know!

    That's why when we go to see a ballet such as "Swan Lake", we need to be more accepting of the originating historic circumstance that brought such a classic to our shores. Furthermore, if we see a ballerina of color or "happening to be black" dancing the lead in it, in a major ballet company some day, we "should be" overtly happy yes! But not to the point where we sanction it as "revolutionary"! We should merely enjoy it for what it is! That it's art! That she sure must be worthy of the honor to be dancing there in "that", after all these years!

    I could expand further and be much more specific as to which black ballet dancers have achieved what where down through history in major ballet companies around the world including America, but I won't. (That also includes "Guest Artist"!) I could also pinpoint many ballet dancers of color achieving great work in major ballet companies in the world today but I won't. Because "I know" they are there! The "ones" that are there now are enough for me!
  • 12 Philip // Oct 7, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    In an artistic profession, that requires the artist to stand and evaluated themselves in front of $5000 worth of mirrors most days of their performing life, such defacto segregation and covert racism is not surprising. But, the mirror is color blind. Human eyes, speech and actions are not.

    The great attorney William Kunsler, who represented the Chicago 7 and the Hobson v. Hanson DC busing case said it best: "everyone is a racist." His point being, we are attracted to what we know, trust and don't fear. In an art form where the music is visual, dancers! Directors and audience ultimately are attracted to the familiar.

    To those who posit idea beyond the reptilian mind, is the choice to create change. It's starts in the school studio, it continues in the audition, codifies itself in casting and comes to fruition in performance. Dancers who (let's call it like it is...) are not white, from means but who have an interest and love in -any- of the arts, but particularly dance, must be encouraged to populate this art form.

    In 20 years, caucasians will no longer be the dominant race in the US. Time to start on the path to create equal numbers in ballet.
  • 13 R. Bettmann // Oct 7, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    The Guardian (UK) did a piece on this malignancy back in 2008, and I was glad to share it on Bourgeon. The piece notes, “Neither the Royal Ballet nor the English National Ballet currently employs a single black ballerina. The path to ballet stardom is generally easier for black men than women: black men are considered well built for lifts and pas de deux work. Just 10 dancers in the Royal Ballet’s 98-strong company are not white – of those, only four are black, and all of them, like Acosta, are male. At ENB, just eight out of 71 dancers are not white. Only one is black, and he is also male.”

    You can see it here: http://bourgeononline.com/2008/04/women-men-and-color/

    As noted, our expectations for the stage differ from era to era. Race/Gender disparities have to been seen as social malignancies (like body image), and as activists theater directors can play a role in moving social understandings.
  • 14 H.T. Katt // Oct 10, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    A couple of quick thoughts. First, U.S. companies seem not to have a difficulty with recruiting dancers who are part of the nation's largest minority, Hispanic Americans. Interesting that this is discussed nowhere in the article, because it suggests that being a member of a racial minority isn't the problem. I'm not suggesting that I know what the problem IS. But with the number of Latino dancers in mainstream companies, it seems that it is not race alone. Is it that ballet as we practice it here in the U.S. has little to say - or attract - African American youth. There are many, many other more visible role models that I can imagine being far more appealing and attractive to them.
  • 15 C. P. Carman // Oct 26, 2010 at 5:04 PM

    Speaking as a mother of two young dancers, Ms. Johnson hit upon two very key points. The main one being lack of disposable income. My daughters are 17 and 10. When I think of the money that I have spent through the years in tuition I cringe. Most of my friends and family think I'm crazy. I have to work a second job to pay tuition, fees and buy dance shoes.
    Yet I do it because my children love it and it keeps them out of trouble.
    However, I must admit, I have told my oldest she may not major in dance in college. I too want the doctor or attorney. My child must be able to support herself. I have seen talented dancers (both black and white) who can not make it financially.
    I would also like to add a third reason: it is lonely. My youngest daughter longs to see someone like herself. She gets tired of saying my hair won't do that or looking at her legs in the tights that don't match.
    There will continue to be a shortage of black ballerinas for these reasons.
  • 16 LuKiitas // Jan 22, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    We were at the opening night of the new works at the Ballet last night, your work was remarkable. Great music for such a wonderful choreographed piece. You were amazing. Congratulations on your collaboration. I hope we will hear more from you. Barbara Houghton, professor of art/photo, Northern Kentucky University

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