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Ballet Diversity: Minorities in Ballet


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Back when Ballet Alert!'s discussion forum was just "Ballet Talk" there was a thread started called Minorities in Ballet, still available as "read only", on the other board which I've given a link to.

 

This is an important discussion that has been brought up a number of times. I'm starting this thread as an opportunity to continue discussion of "the race issue" as Dance Magazine's June 2005 issue has titled its cover story. For those who are interested and need a place to seek advice or share their insights this might be a helpful place to continue the discussion of minority issues in ballet.

 

*fixed the link!

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I live in the southern US, which probably has a higher minority population (40% in my community) than many other areas of the country. But I have noticed a trend that I'm at a loss to explain: the students in the lower level ballet classes at my daughter's studio reflect pretty accurately the overall population, yet in the highest level classes, there may only be one or two minority students in a class of about a dozen students. Why the drop-off? It certainly isn't lack of talent, nor do I think it is lack of parental support. The professional company associated with the school has always (as long as I can remember) had minority company members, including soloists. It may be economics, perhaps, since there is an income gap unfortunately in this area of the country, and we all know ballet becomes more expensive as you progress, but do any of you have any other ideas? I personally would love to see minority representation in ballet become so widespread it is a non-issue, but I don't feel it will unless we each look at the reasons behind it now.

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calamitous

Thanks for posting the back up. As a suggestion to balletmom's question, I wonder if it has to do with outside peer pressures. There is a fair amoount of reseach in education to say that smart AA kids, particularly, who live in suburban environments do not achieve at school since it is seen as 'being white.' Obviously the issue is much more complex than just this one item, but it does contribute. In education this shift in typically seen when kids enter high school and it is more evident in diverse schools and communities than in homogeneous AA or caucasion with few minorities.

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Calamitous (I've always loved your name, btw), I think you make a very good point, and one I had not thought of even though I have been aware of this type of peer pressure in the AA community for many years--even dating back to the early days of integration in my youth. It definitely is a complex issue, and one much bigger than me. Although I'm not African American, I can identify in small ways (much smaller, though, than the AA experience) with the fear of having your culture disappear by assimilation.

 

*Please correct me if I'm missing your post's point!

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calamitous

No you didn't miss it at all. I may not always like the apsects of AA, particularly urban since I work with urban heavily AA public schools, that kids choose to identify with. And I hope to heaven these are not what my darling DD will choose, but the pressure is clearly there.

And as I look at my DD school, I do believe that ballet and arts in general can provide other places for AA to identify and find themselves and find strength within themselves. I believe this was what the founder of Harlem Dance Theatre wanted and one of the premises behind the current Mad Hot Ballroom.

 

And the name - it was a randoml y assigned password for a university course i was teaching, and I just thought it was most fitting.

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Momof3darlings
Why the drop-off? It certainly isn't lack of talent, nor do I think it is lack of parental support.

 

I can see several reasons for the drop off. First and foremost, the parental influence. After all, how many AA ballerinas were their in most parents times? How many are there now? AA families who are raising their children to "have a better life than I had", will not see ballet as a way to achieve that better life. Therefore, talent or not, it isn't pushed. That is a generalized statement of course, because here I am helping DD to achieve that dream if it is within her grasp.

 

There is also the stereotypical "ballet body type" which will weed out more AA more quickly if they have the sterotypical AA body. (And before you shoot me, my own DD is petite, still wears x-small and small leotards and size 1 jeans. But has the rounded derriere and thighs that are hereditary). She has many a teacher who have guided her in the right direction and encouraged her to continue with ballet training. Just as an early teacher said, "you'd make a great modern or jazz dancer since you won't make it in ballet due to your shape". Kids hear these things and do learn from them.

 

And lastly, the peer pressure is there as several before me have spoken. DD is asked many times do you dance or do you do ballet by her AA counterparts? Ballet is thought of as "that white thing". It isn't considered by many (at least many teens in our area) as real dancing. This is among the teen set though who I don't think say much positive about anything at all so we dismiss it.

 

Balletmom is correct. If numbers were to increase it would become a non-issue. I remember when I was in college back in the dark ages there had never been an AA cheerleader at our university. A group of us went to the Athletic Director and Cheerleader coaches to ask why. The Coach simply said, "it is hard when you only have 2 tryout when 200 of other ethnicities try out. The ratios are not there. When the ratios make sense you will see it happen more and more." And he was right! We just have to keep foraging forward!

 

VJ

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Guest Saji

I believe that one way to irradicate the almost non-existant dark skinned ballarina or male dancer is to start affirming that child from the very begining. There is NO such thing as a white thing or a black thing, and so on.

 

I am African-American, and as a child, my so called priviledged life was identified as being white. Looking back now, I can understand why that was so. Martian Luther King, Jr. was marching. Racial tensions were high. Mine and my siblings love for the arts were kind of a secret. We lived in the suburbs, but spent time in the city, and went to city schools. We had to live what was sort of a double life.

 

When my children were born, from day one they were told, they were worthy of everything good in life. As they got older, more of an explination was given, which eventually led to lessons on how white society, may attempt to make them feel unwelcomed. Also, how the black society will attempt to do the same.

 

My daughter, at the tender age of 8 handles these issues with such grace and poise, that I often tell her....I want to be like her when I grow up.

 

I believe, that raising a minority child in todays society, we all must tell that child, that he or she is worthy of everything and anything deemed right. That no one thing belongs to one particular race.

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Please ignore.. i was unable to finish the reply and hit the reply button.

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Mel Johnson

Well, welcome to Ballet Talk for Dancers anyway, amitava! :wacko:

 

Feel free to try another whack at the topic!

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Well, welcome to Ballet Talk for Dancers anyway, amitava!  :wacko:

 

Feel free to try another whack at the topic!

 

1) I assume that the discussion is limited to Classical Ballet only - and not other forms of dance

2) I assume that all minorities/races are included in the discussion, but by minorities we mean Asians/Middle Easterners, Africans, African Americans, Hispanics, and various non-Anglo ethnicities from South America.

3) I assume the discussion is limited to the scene in the USA

 

I am very new to the world of ballet, but have noticed that while the "older" generation of dancers were "white", the trend is definitely heading to include all races with talent. I have only seen the dance scene in Texas, primarily Dallas, Houston, and Austin and can only provide input from this angle. Overall this is a complex issue -since one can view/discuss it from several prospective - the parents, the art, the audience, the history, the trends, the causes, the effects, etc. etc.

 

Some observations/ramblings:

 

1) Cultures seems to value dance/ballet differently..point made in earlier thread. This is evident from both on the stage and the audience who come to see performances. I see more (an extremely high percentage) "white" audience members even in decently diverse cities such as Houston and Austin. Asians (except for Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese), Middle Easterners, and Africans (two of the largest non-white groups) for a variety of reasons do not seem to support or attend performances. If that is the case, why would they help their children's interest or expand their horizons? There are educational/outreach programs for children via schools, but really not much for unexposed parents of the "minorities". I feel that until adults appreciate the art form, it will be difficult to get non-Anglo parents to connect themselves/their children to Ballet.

 

2) Ballet, like classical music, takes commitment to appreciate on a deeper level. While it can be enjoyed on a superficial level..of pretty dancers, wonderful leaps, gorgeous costumes and sets, etc, It takes a decent amount of time, effort, and money to understand its subtleties and broaden one's sense of appreciation. How many "minorities" can afford this, even if they have interest?

 

3) I agree economics is an issue. Ballet is an expensive commitment (as is music). Unlike music, facilities and clothing costs have to be added. Training I think is more expensive in the long term as well. This automatically excludes a large minority/racial group. In Africa and Asia, in the previous generation, saving money is considered a priority. If one has to invest it in a child, education that brings a "good" and "respectable" job is far higher on the list than cultural training. I speak in generalities.

 

4) Most dancers have a very short career (relative to others), and unlike sports are paid very little for their efforts. In addition, the number of opportunities is limited. I am not sure how many parents really support Ballet as a career in the long term. Minorities especially probably do not feel that it is a worthwhile investment, but then it would be unfair for me to generalize. This is just a reasonable suspicion.

 

5) I think men have a more difficult time in Ballet. Besides the sissy stigma, the roles are fewer and thus the fewer opportunities. Somehow I get the impression percentage wise, there are more male minorities than females. So the male side may be faring well...strangely.

 

6) If there really a minority issue ...from the prospective of numbers? Unfortunately I do not have access to the census numbers, but I am curious as to if ballet companies (over all total dancers) really do not reflect the ratio of "Anglo" to non-Anglo ratios in the country!!!! And if ratios are not the same, then how much is it off by? Is skin color a sign of ethnicity or a dancer's upbringing? Of the four companies I have seen in Texas, it is a strange mix. Ballet Austin and Houston Ballet seem to have a mix of ethnicities/races. Metropolitan Ballet (Arlington) and Texas Ballet Theatre do not seem to have minorities. I saw only one of the two casts of TBT, so the other group may break the mould. This is of course gauging by skin color only.

 

7) Cultural issues. The story ballets are geared specifically towards mythologies that Anglo/Europeans can relate to. I agree some themes are universal, but others are unusual. I am not sure how much of a barrier this poses when trying to get a "foreigner"/minority (think religion/mythology variety here) to relate to a ballet.

 

To me personally it does not matter what race/age/sex (yes sex) a dancer is. If the dancer can hold my attention and make me believe he/she is the character, it is all that matters. Of course form, lines, spacing, coordination, and sense of aesthetics come into play as well. But it is very easy for me to look past the skin/sex... and the glitter around it. The more non dress rehearsals I attend, the more I have begun to appreciate what dancing is really about. Costumes, sets, lighting are very nice icing/filling.

 

In case you are wondering.. I am a male heathen from India.

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I’d like to weigh in on this topic. To answer Balletmom’s question “why do AA dancers drop out”, I think their parents realize serious ballet training hinders academics. My grandfather left school in the 3rd grade to work with his father and brothers in their plastering/painting business. He was determined that my mother graduate from high school -which was considered a major accomplishment for AAs of her generation. She insisted all seven of her children attend college, junior college, nursing school....... A post high school education is viewed in the AA community as validation of hard work and sacrifice. I think most AA parents don’t want their junior-high and high-school age children spending 3 to 4 hours every evening after school doing a non-academic activity that encourages delaying college for a career that is not that welcoming, pays poorly, has a high rate of injury, and last around 10 years. Playing sports is different - because the student may be able to get a scholarship for college or it can be used as a “hook” for gaining admittance into a highly selective college.

 

ALL of DD’s older cousins have graduated or are currently attending college/university. DH and I have not pressured DD but I think our families probably will…soon.

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Momof3darlings
I think most AA parents don’t want their junior-high and high-school age children spending 3 to 4 hours every evening after school doing a non-academic activity that encourages delaying college for a career that is not that welcoming, pays poorly, has a high rate of injury, and last around 10 years

 

Ah yes! That too. My rising Senior is having a very hard time with extended family right now because if given a choice (by a company) she would like to defer college for a year. Oh boy did fire works go off and are still going off! She's learned not to talk about it.

 

amitava--yes all minorities should weigh in on the discussion. However, I would like to make sure that in our comparisons, we do compare apples to apples. I get an overall sense from your comments that we are comparing wealthy Caucasians to unwealthy minorities. And in reality, I think our answers lie in comparing middle class Caucasians to middle class minorities or Wealthy minorities to wealthy Caucasians. In our area, the underpriviledged dancers are not enrolling for ballet regardless of color or ethnicity. Let's be careful not to stereotype our minorities into the "unexposed" category.

 

There is NO such thing as a white thing or a black thing, and so on.

Saji--I agree. The question asked in our house is that of "does it have a color" on most issues that come up where race is an issue: Does good behavior have a color? Does right and wrong have a color? etc. Those questions have helped in raising our kids where they have not fit into what is our nations stereotype of what an AA is. It can ruffle your feathers though when you are told "you're not black enough" from one group and "why don't you act ghetto" by another group. We've recently had the "where do I fit" discussion in our house. We make our own way around here and will continue to.

 

Back to the ballet question--I would like to keep it on the topic of ballet and minorities rather than into other dance forms and minorities. I think minorities have become a welcome part of the modern and jazz communities long ago. I think more and more are becoming a part of the Ballet community with each day. The key to balletmom's questions other than those things we've outlined here already might be what is seen as "reaching the heights". Any community will see that it is easier to reach a height that is tangible. Lauren Anderson and a few others have made reaching Principal Ballet dancer tangible for our youth. Reaching a place where you have "seen" a target is one thing. Reaching a place where you imagine there "might" be a target is another whole mindset. As we see more and more minorities on the stage in the forefront, we will see more and more minority dancers stick it out through the years to aim for it.

 

I'm loving this discussion by the way!

 

vj

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amitava, since you edited your earlier post after my post I would like to address two items you mentioned. First, I am AA and thus can only discuss this issue from a working-class/middle-class AA prospective. Second, you comment……

1) Cultures seems to value dance/ballet differently..point made in earlier thread.  This is evident from both on the stage and the audience who come to see performances.  I see more (an extremely high percentage) "white" audience members even in decently diverse cities such as Houston and Austin.  Asians (except for Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese), Middle Easterners, and Africans (two of the largest non-white groups) for a variety of reasons do not seem to support or attend performances.  If that is the case, why would they help their children's interest or expand their horizons?

There was a “Wall Street Journal” article a few years ago that identified the annual income of attendees at operas, symphonies, ballets, various concerts and sporting events. The attendees at ballets and operas have the highest annual gross income, closely followed by symphony attendees. I live on the Washington state – Idaho border and DD takes class at two studios (one studio is in an affluent northern Idaho city, the other is in a major city in eastern Washington). DD is one of two AA dancers among the 30+ dancers in her level, but we are the ONLY family that has season tickets to PNB. Ironically, because of where we live it is far more costly (1.5hr drive to the airport, airfare, meals/lodging, and season tickets cost) for us to attend the performances than the families of her peers.

 

As an aside -until this year I didn’t think DD being AA had an affect on how she was treated in class or the assignment of performance parts. Her primary studio is/was in an affluent city in northern Idaho. She takes a Saturday class at the 2nd studio. DD is serious and passionate about ballet; she has the body, the facility, and works hard. She has been accepted (frequently w/scholarship) to the major SIs around the country. The same is not true of her peers. This has created a dilemma for the AD, who has acquiesced to the pressures (perceived or real) in her community. After her two SIs this summer, DD is switching to the studio in eastern Washington, who’s AD has a more progressive attitude towards minorities.

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