Racism in dance exists. This post is not going to discuss or debate whether racism, discrimination, prejudice, lack of diversity, lack of representation, white supremacy, racial stereotyping and bias exist in the dance world- the answer to all of the above is yes. Even though Misty Copeland is a Principal dancer with ABT. Even though some dancewear brands now offer ballet tights and pointe shoes in a larger variety of skin tones for black and brown dancers. Even though discussions are starting to open up about racial stereotyping in ballet choreography like La Bayadère and The Nutcracker. I have seen some writers pointing to these things as signs that the dance world is becoming more progressive and embracing positive change. In reality, these steps are only a very small start along the path to real change. These changes are long overdue, and we still have so far to go until dancers of colour have the same access and opportunities in top-level dance as white dancers; until black and brown tights and shoes are just as widely available as light pink ones; until traditionally black and Asian dance forms are given the same emphasis as ballet and modern in dance curriculum; and until racial stereotyping and even blackface are banished from the stage. This post is going to discuss where racism exists in the dance world & some of the things that we can and should start doing straight away to make that change happen.
A couple of things, first of all: I am a white woman, and I can’t ever speak for black dancers, brown dancers, Asian dancers, indigenous dancers, mixed race dancers or dancers of any other non-white background. I can’t ever really know their experiences and I don’t want to take over, distract from or drown out their narratives. However I think it’s really important that all of us, especially those that have a platform to share our thoughts and our art, and especially those who benefit from the privilege of being white, use that to acknowledge and actively speak out against and fight against racism wherever it exists. I hope that this piece can highlight areas of racism in the dance world, point you towards dancers of colour who have spoken on their experiences, and give some advice on how to be actively anti-racist all the time- not only when it’s trending on social media.
The other thing is that racism in dance is a huge and complex issue. I can’t cover everything in this post. Therefore I’ll more than likely revisit this discussion to go more in depth on different specifics in the future (e.g. erasure of black dance history, cultural appropriation in dance, blackface and yellowface on the ballet stage, lack of diversity in dance companies, white supremacy in dance academia & curriculum… these are just a few examples of topics that could each be their own comprehensive post!). If there are specific areas you want a separate post about, let me know in the comments!
Examples of Racism in Dance
Blackface/ Yellowface on the Stage
It seems absolutely insane to say this in 2020, but blackface makeup was still used widely in ballet until recently, and is still in practice in some places. Last year, an image was shared on Instagram of two white dancers from the Bolshoi ballet in blackface for a performance of La Bayadère, and sparked widespread debate after being reposted by Misty Copeland.
The Bolshoi rejected criticism of this choice of costume, arguing that their production of Bayadère had always been performed this way. Other dancers also supported this argument, claiming that this was a traditional part of the art form, and not racism.
This comes from a lack of understanding about what racism is, and the belief that all racism is based in hatred. In truth, racism comes in many guises, and it is possible for anyone to do racist things without ill-intentions. It is crucial that instead of becoming defensive, we recognise where we may have been involved in racism, however uncomfortable that may be. Yes, in the past, these practices may have been traditional. However we now know better. Blackface is never okay, in the context of the stage nor anywhere else. It makes a mockery of the appearance of a black person, even if the performer doesn’t see that as the intention. It is perfectly possible to cease the use of this type of costume and make-up going forwards, as many other companies have now done.
Similarly, many productions of The Nutcracker include costumes and choreography that caricature people of Asian descent and their culture. Final Bow for Yellowface, an organisation campaigning for a change in the way Asian people are represented on stage, say this about their mission:
In the same way that Blackface is limiting and degrading to African Americans, continuing to present an 19th century view of Asians does not allow for character nuance for Asian American dancers today. If all audiences see is the bobbing and shuffling coolie from a bygone era as the only representation of Asians on stage, what message does that send to our Asian students who dream of dancing the Swan Queen? What does that say to the Asian audience members who want to see themselves on stage, only to finds themselves as the butt of the joke? What does that say to the Board member, who writes checks and involves their friends, only to see a one-dimensional representation of their heritage?Phil Chan & Georgina Pazcoguin (https://www.yellowface.org/our-vision)
These practices need to be eliminated from dance so that we can build a better dance future that welcomes everyone.
Racism in Dance Curriculum
Dance courses in colleges, universities and vocational training institutions generally prioritise ballet and modern/ contemporary dance over other dance styles. Often, ballet and modern or contemporary dance are core subjects, meanwhile other styles such as hip-hop, jazz, tap, Bollywood, Bharatanatyam, West African dance, and more are not offered at all or are offered as electives. Therefore, every student regardless of training background has to study ‘white’ dance forms, and may go their entire dance education without experiencing any other way of moving. Ballet and modern are considered more prestigious, more important and more worthy of academic attention than other styles. This is white supremacy in dance education.
We often hear baseless claims such as “ballet is the foundation of all dance”, and “if you can dance ballet well, you can dance any other style”. This is something that I used to hear all the time and assumed was true, but it’s absolutely not. Ballet has very little bearing on most other dance styles. That’s not to mention that a lot of modern and contemporary dance has evolved from cultural appropriation from black and Asian dance styles. Dance history classes routinely focus on ballet and modern and ignore everything else, whilst denying the influence of black and Asian dance, culture and people on the development of ballet and modern dance, too.
I have to say that I have been lucky in my dance degree education at the University of Roehampton to have learned a comprehensive dance history including the many ways in which cultural appropriation has shaped both popular and classical dance styles today. We also learned about the ways in which the histories of some dancers and groups have been all but erased from history, and we have to be aware of that when we look at the dance history that has been recorded. Always consider, whose voices might be missing here? However this isn’t yet the dominant practice in dance education, and more needs to be done to eliminate white supremacy in dance education.
Dancewear for White Skintones as the Norm
The light pink colour of ballet tights and shoes is designed to (closely, not exactly) imitate a light skin tone and make the lines of the legs and feet look very long. Even though some black and brown dancers might choose to wear pink tights and shoes, until very recently this wasn’t even a choice. Ballet tights, soft ballet shoes and pointe shoes were only available in light pink. If a black or brown dancer wanted to wear shoes that matched their skin tone and therefore elongated their lines, they had to cover them with paint or make-up. This was the painstaking daily reality for dancers of colour, that white dancers never had to worry about.
Now, more dancewear and pointe shoe brands are introducing a wider range of shades so that black and brown dancers can buy shoes ready-made in a colour to suit their skin. However, these options are not available from every brand, and not in every style of shoe, meaning a much narrower choice. These options are also often custom orders, so they can be more expensive than the pink versions and take much longer to be ready.
Beyond shoes, there is a whole host of things that we use every day in dance that are supposed to be “flesh toned” when in reality they are made for white skin colours only: plasters (Band-Aids), sports tape, underwear for dancewear/ costumes, straps and mesh parts of dancewear and costumes, ribbons, elastic… until white skin isn’t assumed to be the norm in dancewear, we can’t truly say that we are embracing diversity in the art form.
Here I wanted to share a few quotes detailing the experiences faced by some dancers of colour and people working in the dance world on issues around race that they have experienced.
Because I don’t look mixed-race, I would hear a lot of comments about black bodies, things like ‘black people don’t like classical music’, ‘black people have got flat feet’,” she says. “Some people were told ‘your bum’s too big’, ‘you’ve got too much Afro hair’ — things that would get you fired now. But in 2000 directors were still saying you couldn’t have a black swan in the corps because it would distract the audience.”Cassa Panco for The Evening Standard
“I love the royalty of ballet, the theatricality and the stories, though I feel that the stories that women of color in ballet are telling are not their own,”Cortney Taylor Key for HuffPost
“I think the government should provide funding for children of color to access all classical art forms from a very young age. If Black and brown students had more access, it wouldn’t be such a culture shock. It wouldn’t be so foreign to see someone doing something you only think about and keep to yourself. Sometimes seeing is believing. If more children of color saw what they can become, they would believe that it is possible.”Corey Taylor Key for HuffPost
“I am looking at challenging how Black hair styles are incorporated into the classical realm of ballet. As dancers we usually go from a bun to French twist; a couple of ballets allow dancer’s choice. But that comes with the tradition of keeping the hair up to showcase the neckline, portray elegance. Can I still have a bun if it’s cornrowed? What about a French twist made from flat twists? Let’s not forget that many of these ballets are based on a certain hair texture but today, dance companies and dancers are questioning what ballet beauty looks like in the 21st century.”Daphne M. Lee for HuffPost
“I’ve tried to stay away from pink tights for rehearsals and have only worn them for performances, where hopefully sooner rather than later we should be able to wear skin-colored tights and pointe shoes.”Miranda Silveira for HuffPost
“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.”Preston Miller for DanceSpirit
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.”Hollie Wright for DanceSpirit
On one occasion, in a “Nutcracker” production of the prestigious ballet school I attended in the 1970s, I appeared in the party scene because the young dancer cast in the role was snowbound. I was so plastered with powder that I came across the footlights deathly pale — shades lighter than all the other dancers. Such was the anxiety about preserving ballet’s whiteness.Laurie A. Woodward for New York Times
Super Simple Actions You Can Take to Support Your Anti-Racism Work
It’s really important that we take steps to make sure we’re being actively anti-racist. Anti-racism isn’t just about checking off tasks on a list- it’s about educating yourself, examining your own thoughts and actions, questioning the systems that support or allow racism to continue, being an ally to people of colour and speaking up against racism and discrimination. However sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Therefore I’ve put together a list of a few simple one-time actions you can take. Any one of these actions alone isn’t enough, but they can support your continued anti-racist work. You could choose a new one to do each day- just make sure that your work doesn’t end there.
- Read this list of actionable steps for ballet schools to take by BalletBlack (make sure you click through all the images for the full list) and send it to a ballet teacher or school director:
- And read this list (again, click through all the images for the full list!) for ballet companies and send it on to companies or people in positions of power within companies:
- Read all about the work of Final Bow for Yellowface on their website.
- Then, sign the pledge for Final Bow for Yellowface.
- If you can, donate to Final Bow for Yellowface.
- And if you can, buy and read the book Final Bow for Yellowface.
- Watch “I Can’t Breathe” by Marcelino Sambe on Instagram TV:
- Read through this Instagram post about how to be anti-racist in general (not just in dance)- make note of some actions you can take from that post, and then share it to your stories.
- Join the Ballet Black Friends Circle.
- Sign up to the Ballet Black mailing list.
- Buy merchandise to support Ballet Black, and wear something like the supporters pin or the keyring to show your support.
- Explore the MoBBallet website and ezine.
- Find black and POC artists and dancers on social media. Follow them, listen to what they have to say, and support their work.
- Read about Brown Girls Do Ballet on their website.
- Donate to Brown Girls Do Ballet.
- Set up your Amazon Smile account to donate to Brown Girls Do Ballet every time you shop (go to smile.amazon.com and search for “brown girls do ballet” in the organisation search)
- Subscribe to the Dance Union podcast.
- Follow Dance Union on Instagram and share their posts.
- Choose some actions from this extensive range of BLM resources, including resources for different countries.
- Read this article on confronting racism and implicit bias in the studio.
- Read this article on recognising systematic racism in dance.
- Read this article on dance in the age of BLM.
- Ask dancewear companies to include a diverse range of shades and make them easily available, and to promote diversity in their advertising and on social media. Stop giving dancewear companies free promotion by tagging them on social media until they show commitment to change:
These actions are just a start. Your anti-racism work should go far beyond the actions listed here, but these are great ways to add to that work, and please do add more suggestions in the comments!
This won’t be the last time I speak about this, but I really hope that this post has helped you to understand some of the ways that racism is still present in dance, and some things that you can start doing to educate yourself and advocate for change.