Our world is a little backwards when you think about it. People are selfish, they do bad things, they don’t get along with others, they make excuses, and they hold prejudices. This was all fine with me; however, because whenever I went to ballet class I could forget about all of it. Dance was my escape from a broken world to a perfect world. In dance, hard work undoubtedly returns high success and talent is undebatable. In dance, the language you speak is universal; a plié in New York means the same exact thing as a plié in Moscow. You can be anyone or anything you want to be on stage, and audiences will happily give you their undivided attention and think you’re the epitome of beauty. The dance world is simply a perfect world. Isn’t it?
Well, not quite. Just ask the scores of aspiring African-American ballerinas over the years, whose beauty wasn’t quite as welcome, and whose hard work did not make them just as successful as everyone else. We have a long way to go before all races are equally represented in the ballet sphere. Nevertheless, there have been many inspiring and in uential black ballerinas who have paved the way for many talented African-American dancers today, warranting more recognition than they typically receive.
Janet Collins grew up in the 1920s and dreamed of being a ballerina from a young age. Her family moved to Los Angeles to help Collins’s training, only for her to be denied access to dance classes because she was black. So, Collins’s mother sewed dance costumes in exchange for private lessons with a teacher who saw Janet’s potential. Her big break finally came in 1932 at age 15, when she was invited to dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. But the job came under one condition; she was told to paint her face and body white in order to appear onstage. Janet refused, turning down what would have been a career-making opportunity, but her courage paid off. In 1951, Collins became the first African-American artist in history to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House and danced lead roles with them for three years. Later in her career, Collins taught at many prestigious dance programs around New York, including our very own Marymount Manhattan College, where she was on the dance faculty from 1958 to 1969 and premiered one of her de ning works, Genesis. While Collins broke barriers in the classical dance world, most dancers you ask today would probably not even recognize her name.
On the otherhand, Misty Copeland is a household name and for better or worse, the token example for practically every discussion on diversity in the dance world. As documented in her autobiography, documentary, and several other books, Copeland took her first ballet classes at the Boys and Girls club in Los Angeles. Recognizing her potential, her first ballet teacher offered to drive her to take more rigorous dance classes at another studio. Soon enough, schools like the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre were offering her scholarships to study at their summer intensives. Copeland of cially joined the corps of American Ballet Theater in 2001 and was promoted to soloist in 2007. It’s important to note that Copeland was actually the third African-American to become a soloist at ABT; the lesser-known Anne Benna Sims and Nora Kimball preceded her. Copeland made history, however, when she was promoted to the highest-ranking status of principal dancer in 2015. In an interview with TIME Magazine and former President Barack Obama, Copeland said, “having a platform and having a voice to be seen by people beyond the classical ballet world has really been my power. And it’s forcing a lot of these top tier companies to address the lack of diversity and diversifying the bodies that we’re seeing in classical ballet. It’s really forcing that conversation to be had.”
Both onstage and off, Copeland has inspired young dancers of color all across the country, including Precious Adams, Michaela DePrince, and a slew of other young men and women, to pursue their own dreams of becoming professional ballet dancers. It’s important that we take note of them as well, because unfortunately Copeland won’t be dancing forever. The dancers that have come after her continue to face obstacles, from under-the- table comments to outright discrimination. At the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia, Adams was told by a teacher to try and “rub the black off” so she would fit in better with the corps de ballet. And DePrince, who now dances with the Dutch National Ballet, recounted, “When I was a child, I overheard one of my directors saying ‘we don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls, because they end up getting fat.’”
As former President Obama recounted in his talk with Copeland, positive role models aren’t always enough to spark large-scale change. Economic inequality plays a key role in ballet’s lack of diversity.
“We have to remember that the barriers that exist for [dancers of color] to pursue their dreams are deep and structural. And so it is wonderful that the potential dancer can see Copeland and say, I can do that. But if there’s no dance studio at all in their neighborhood, and if their schools don’t offer any extracurricular activities, then it’s going to be a problem,” he said.
Breaking stereotypes in the cut-throat, competitive ballet scene is a daunting task on all fronts. But every small step adds up. In January, Gaynor Minden, a popular ballet gear company, released two new shades of pointe shoes, Cappuccino and Espresso. This may seem trivial, but they are actually the first company in history to sell pointe shoes specially made for dancers of color. Previously, these dancers would’ve had to dye their classic satin- pink pointe shoes, which could take hours and ultimately weakens the durability of the shoe.
And on the home front, dancers at Marymount Manhattan College have taken their own initiatives. On Saturday March 18, they will be holding a Dance and Diversity Summit, which will feature a panel discussion with young dancers of color, as well as a master class from Jeremy McQueen, professional dancer, teacher and educator, who spoke speci cally about diversity at the Dance Department’s Dialogues series last semester.
Elena Comendador, Assistant Professor of Dance at MMC, agrees that diversity should be a top priority for the college, saying “Of course we can always do more to increase diversity in the department and the college as a whole.”
It’s hard enough as a dancer, being constantly evaluated by your flexibility, stage presence, and strength, let alone the unalterable color of your skin, which has nothing to do with any of the others. It’s time that dancers, teachers, and choreographers celebrate differences and embody true beauty in all its different shades, not just ballet-pink. The dance world will never be perfect, as I had previously thought, but at the least, everyone deserves to have a place in it.