This isn’t a new situation and neither are attempts to call greater attention to it. In 2011, Sierra Leonean phenom Michaela DePrince was featured in the award-winning documentary First Position, which discussed the challenges she’s faced while ascending through the rarefied ranks of dance as a dark-skinned ballerina. At 19, DePrince currently dances with the Dutch National Ballet’s junior company, but she still experiences institutional racism in the artform. In a 2013 interview with DanceTabs, she astutely noted, “As a black ballerina racism is less about what happens to you and more about what doesn’t happen to you.”
An illuminating piece in The Guardian last year titled, “Where are the black ballet dancers?” reifies DePrince’s claim, interviewing a number of world-class black dancers, including the New York City Ballet’s Aesha Ash:
Black women are often perceived as rude, ostentatious and aggressive. In ballet, the meek, humble, innocent young girl roles are rarely given to black women. But we are all those things and then some. We don’t always have to be exotic – all fire, athleticism. The images we don’t see of black women as princesses: that speaks volumes.
Ash is speaking to the power of visual representation. Ballerinas have long been avatars of possibility for little girls. Watching them work is a real-life reminder that, with talent, drive and intense practice, it is possible for to become the closest thing our world has to a real-life fairy or a princess without royal pedigree. When black and brown girls don’t see black ballerinas in the world’s most prestigious troupes, the absence intimates diminished possibility. A career in professional ballet is already a long shot for most girls, but the odds seem even longer for black girls who rarely, if ever, see prima ballerinas of color succeed.
To counter that, social media campaigns like Brown Girls Do Ballet on Instagram and Tumblr blogs like Black Ballerinas have been created to heighten their visibility. These social media spaces and others are also making Pointe’s new magazine cover a virally shared image. But establishing the presence of black dancers is only a fraction of the battle. Black and brown people cannot stop at proving that we do, indeed, exist in spaces where we are still — in 2014 — unexpected (or worse, unwelcome).
It’s past time for diverse representation to deepen.
What makes Pointe’s magazine cover such a shareable meme is that it gives us more than one black dancer in one space: three body types, three dance companies, three distinct black experiences, coexisting. The cover eschews tokenism in a way that the larger culture of ballet has not, illustrating the ways in which media may lead the charge of reshaping what’s possible for future generations of black ballerinas.
Our images — both still and moving — won’t make much impact if we approach diversity in the same old ways, occasionally adding “a fly to the buttermilk” to quiet detractors. Black ballerinas, for all the lead and solo opportunities their skin color still costs them, deserve more than media representation that stops at declaring, “We’re out here!”
This was one of the reasons I sat out the 2012 fracas between Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of ABC Family’s ballet-centered drama “Bunheads,” and Shonda Rhimes, ABC’s foremost doyenne of diversity (thanks to her success creating “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”). After the pilot aired, Rhimes famously tweeted, “Hey @abcfbunheads: really? You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?” It was a valid complaint, even if dancers of color did crop up in the background of scenes later in the short-lived series.
But, in truth, I wouldn’t have wanted to see Sherman-Palladino add a black ballerina to her cast unless the girl was ensured a storyline. And if that storyline didn’t at least reference the very real bias black ballerinas face, it still would’ve been a wasted opportunity. Sherman-Palladino’s body of work rarely accounts for race (the Korean Kim family on Gilmore Girls notwithstanding), so my confidence in her desire or willingness to engage it on “Bunheads” would’ve been low.
What young girls of all races need to see more of when they watch ballet-themed media are black and brown dancers facing discrimination — overtly, from dance moms and peers, and institutionally, from instructors and companies. They need to see more than just one dancer in the back of an all-white class or performance. They need to see black ballerinas sharing their varied experiences of systemic racial bias. And they need to see ways in which this pervasive discrimination can be confronted.
Perhaps the upcoming ballet drama, Flesh and Bone, which is slated to air next year on Starz, will offer us incisive racial commentary — if not in its first few episodes (the show doesn’t appear to have dancers of colors in its current cast), then later on. Maybe some savvy TV producer will sign a deal with Misty Copeland to chronicle her Project Plie, an initiative that seeks to diversify ballet student bodies, by offering scholarships to dancers of color and by offering American Ballet Theater to training ballet teachers who work with underrepresented communities. Regardless, ballet seems to be enjoying a silver and small screen renaissance. Media’s opportunities to affect meaningful long-term change in the global dance community abound.
For many, ballerinas are still avatars of possibility. The more aware we are about what black ballet dancers constantly face and overcome, the more we should all want to push back against bias. The more dancers of color we see in a single elite space, the more our children will believe there’s room for more than one at the top.