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Ballet Diversity: Challenges for Dancers of Color


daffodilduds

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When I have this discussion IRL, it tends to circle around in ways very similar to this thread. There is always the person who throws out "But Misty Copeland!!!". This is usually the same type of person that when someone says something about racism still persisting in the US, throws out "But Obama!!!" as if we are in a post-racial world now that we have a black president.

 

I don't think we are going to be able to all come to any kind of consensus about the nature and extent of racism (institutional or otherwise) in this discussion thread, as everyone has had very different experiences, but I think it's great to discuss and then eventually move past the part of the discussion where people explain to other people that there are challenges even if you don't see or experience them yourself.

 

Here is something that I came across during Nut. Our Nutcracker has makeup artists who apply the makeup. The kids put on their own foundation from an array of choices, and there are professionals who apply the rest. Some of them are more experienced, but it's luck of the draw which kid will get which makeup person. They are supposed to make all the kids look pretty much the same. However, there is more than one lipstick shade for each part. Sometimes, the makeup artist will use such a light light lipstick shade that it will come out looking totally wrong. Or the eyes will be done in such a way that you know they just haven't had as much experience working with that type of eyelid. Obviously this is not a tragedy, but even the kids notice it. As a parent, there's not much to do but discreetly roll ones eyes and tell them it looks fine, and silently hope they get a different make up artist next show. This is definitely not a challenge that is insurmountable, or will make a person quit dancing, but I do notice that some kids are affected by it, and it's just one small example of how kids (are made to) feel different.

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firedragon0800

Lemlemish, funny that you should bring up the make up as an example. My dd, was cast in the Nutcracker which is a run of 20+ performances with a prestigious ballet company. It was her second year, having already done 20+ shows the year before.

 

Not knowing how to do her makeup, the school arranged for parents new to the whole thing to take a hair and makeup class with the company's hair and make up artists. Not only did they show me how, but they recommended the makeup brands and the shades to purchase. The following year she had the same parts, so it was a reprise.

 

However within that year, MAC changed their foundation from a lipstick applicator to a liquid form, which was a whole new ballgame for me. Prior to the first show of the second year they, the MAC people, made her up and showed me how to use the liquid foundation, and of course her makeup was perfect.

 

However, for the second show it was the first time I used the liquid foundation, I put too much on and it wasn't blended right and ended up being really thick and uneven. I was a little panicked and nervous and in front of a whole room full of Mom's and kids I hear this voice exclaim, "Oh my God she looks like a Kabuki Doll" (Dolls in Japanese theater famous for pale painted faces) and a few tsks-tsks, titters and chuckles. I could feel my ears and face burning and the disappointment I had for letting down my daughter.

 

Who was visibly nervous and now getting upset with how this was developing, with only five minutes before getting dressed up. There wasn't enough time to remove and reapply. So I walked her down to the dressers who took one look at her face and mine and said "oh my!" and, said to me "don't worry we'll fix it."

 

I looked past it only because it didn't make sense to dwell on it, at the time I could have construed it as a slam against my mixed race daughter, or me being mixed race, because I was a Dad doing something her Mom should be doing, it could have been a competitive thing, comedic relief or just someone just making an innocent observation with no intended malice.

 

As much as it was embarrassing to me and my dd, I chose to think of it as the latter. My nature was to double down and sign up at the local Barbizon school for makeup to make sure it didn't happen again, but fortunately my daughter basically fired me from doing her makeup and ended up doing it herself each show thereafter.

 

For many years I didn't know who it was that had said that unfortunate thing, but my daughter did and kept it to herself, and just recently informed of who it was. It was someone that should have had the knowledge and sensitivity to having a a dk of color.

 

It was water off a ducks back, even if I had known who it was at that time and confronted her, and I don't regret that I opted to look at it as I did.

 

I showed my dd this thread as I wanted to see how she felt about it and what her experience might be and she laughed, and quoted Michaela DePrince from first position, about not wanting to be known as a black ballerina, just a ballerina.

 

That is all I want her focus on, which is tough for any dk regardless of color, there will always be the other stuff, the trash talk, the innuendo, the whisper the averted eyes and in your face slams. That unfortunately comes with the territory as either gamesmanship or vindictiveness neither which should have an effect on anyone, unless they let it.

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Momof3darlings

Let me clarify a bit about the focus of this new thread. If one is a Parent or Dancer of Color then this is a place for you to discuss the issues that you come in contact with. If you are not a Parent of a Dancer of Color or a Dancer of Color to ask what the barriers are that are dealt with is not what this thread is about.

 

Just clarity, that's all and no commentary on my desire to clarify needed or desired.

 

I'll also say that ballet and the music world have always been a bit different. So best for us to keep our discussion here to ballet and not ballet with music differences or even ballet and political differences. As a ballet board, let's not make this a race versus the world thread but simply how color affects those of us who are either dancers of color or Parents thereof.

 

It would also be helpful to discuss specific incidences and not perceived ones. And to first hand experiences/issues not general ones. As an example, let's not discuss that one might want families to be consistent in color in Nutz but rather issues related to actual first hand experience where that has been an issue. First hand experience would be that DD (as a couple) was in her Nutz a representation of a famous African American Doctor and his wife. Her "child" was Caucasian because there were no African American children who auditioned and were talent qualified that year. But that is first hand experience. An assumption that this is how it might or should be is NOT first hand experience. So in other words, this is not a general thread to talk about race in ballet, but a thread to discuss first hand experiences and gain knowledge on how to deal with those.

 

With respect to all and to streamline this thread to it's intended focus.

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First hand experience would be that DD (as a couple) was in her Nutz a representation of a famous African American Doctor and his wife. Her "child" was Caucasian because there were no African American children who auditioned and were talent qualified that year.

 

Perhaps I am looking at this from a different perspective where families are multi-cultural in our ballets all the time, even if both "parents" are the same race, but why is this a problem? I understand it's not representing real genetics or historical accuracy, but would this really be a "challenge" to dancers of colour? :nixweiss:

It was the reality of the situation at the time. We are constantly asked to suspend our disbelief when watching ballets, so why not in this case?

 

Once again, I do not intend to sound confrontational or as though I am discounting the validity of others' experiences, I am simply trying to understand what these challenges may be and how they play out. I am not from the US and I am simply trying to understand. That was the reason for my asking the questions I did in my original response to this topic.

 

For example: my question to buzzandmoo about her daughter's challenges as dancer with Chinese heritage was coming from the perspective that I see Asian dancers in international competitions and well-known international schools (e.g. the Bolshoi) all the time, so I am simply surprised that this heritage would be a problem or make buzzandmoo's dd "different" at her particular school. I am simply seeking to understand how this plays out for her dd. I am asking this with the understanding, however, that not all schools and companies are the same and I was wondering if there was a specific culture/climate at buzzandmoo's dd's school (and associated company) that contributed to this feeling of "difference".

 

Please understand the perspective I am coming from: I am seeking to understand what barriers might lie in place for dk's of different ethnicities and how this plays out.

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Let me clarify a bit about the focus of this new thread. If one is a Parent or Dancer of Color then this is a place for you to discuss the issues that you come in contact with. If you are not a Parent of a Dancer of Color or a Dancer of Color to ask what the barriers are that are dealt with is not what this thread is about.

Thank you for the clarification.

 

I haven't been to the forum in a few days, but coming back to this thread has been interesting. Honestly, I don't feel comfortable sharing specific details about my daughter's situation for several reasons, but one of them is because of the possibility that a well-meaning person (who is likely not a person of color) will come and pick apart our experience and deem it not racist. Personally, I do not like to engage in such conversation.

 

Bluntly, racism and discrimination is NOT dead in this country. Not at all. And while I can respect we all come from different backgrounds and have lived our lives differently, and all of that is well and good, it is absolutely belittling and short-cited to believe that since we have a president who identifies as Black that dancers do not and cannot experience discrimination based upon skin color and other cultural stereotypes. Like I mentioned in a previous post, it can be subtle, so subtle that you don't even see it when it happens, but have that "Aha!" moment way after the fact.

 

To get this back on topic, I don't know for sure if a recent incident that my daughter experienced was blatantly racist or discriminatory in nature, however, I know that racism exists and is so ingrained in our national culture that sometimes people act a certain way towards members of certain groups and they aren't even aware of how their behavior affects others. Would a white child have experienced the same treatment? I don't know. And that is part of the stress that I'm having right now. I'm not seeking for our experiences to have racist undertones, but I'm not going to discount and ignore what could be rooted in bias against people who look like me and my daughter.

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Not my own personal experience, but one of Misty Copeland (ever heard of her? :P ). It's a short clip, but inspiring to my daughter and I.

http://www.bet.com/video/blackgirlsrock/2013/acceptance-speeches/young-gifted-and-black-misty-copeland.html

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Bringing this article over from the African American in Ballet thread because it also seems apropos to this one. (Momof3darlings, please correct me if I'm out of line!)

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/theater_dance/shannon-harkins-the-face-of-african-american-ballet-dancers-struggle/2013/11/26/06c28738-5083-11e3-a7f0-b790929232e1_story.html

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Ok, my last post and then I'm done bothering you all. :blush:

 

Diversity has been mentioned in a few posts on this thread, and it's probably good to take a look at what that really means.

 

So one looks on stage and sees one, two or maybe even a half dozen children of color as part of the casting. Is it "diverse" with just one or two? Or can we consider it diverse when there are a full fledged mix of children playing all type of roles? More importantly, does diverse always equal lack of discrimination? IME, the answer is usually no.

 

At my daughter's ballet school, this year's Nutcracker had several children of color -- several types of Asian, non-white Hispanic, a few Black and biracial children were mixed in the roles. The night we saw my daughter's performance, Clara was Asian with a Russian mama. Totally and truly diverse, and reflective of the area. However, when I drop my child off at class or walk with her into the waiting room, we still get stares. I still hear conversations that are slightly 'off'. (The one I heard this past week was a doozy about types of black people that white children should see and shouldn't see. :rolleyes: ). My daughter has had odd interactions with other children who she sees several times a week. (IOW, they recognize her and should know who she is.)

 

So, for all of the beautiful diversity on the stage, and I mean that sincerely, there are still nutty occurrences behind the scenes.

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As a Caucasian mother of Asian and Latino children, I am all ears. Interestingly, my extended family (including nieces, nephews, and cousins, not just my children) has changed from completely white to extremely multicultural in just one generation. The youngest generation of my family includes immigrants from four different countries/cultures, plus African Americans, due to both intercultural marriages and adoptions. I know the experiences of my children will be different from my own, so I'm really interested in this thread.

 

So far at our small, non-company affiliated studio, we have not experienced anything of concern in class, casting, or interpersonal interactions, but I have no doubt that we will experience some things along the way. I'm always especially wondered about what is to come for my Asian dd who hopes for a professional career. Will her appearance as a minority limit her opportunities? I'm hoping not, of course, but having a community here to talk to about the issues we may face along this journey is so encouraging. Thank you all for sharing!

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I know that racism exists and is so ingrained in our national culture that sometimes people act a certain way towards members of certain groups and they aren't even aware of how their behavior affects others.

 

I think this was my reason for asking the questions I did in the first place. I was afraid that my actions could be racist or come across that way without me realising it and thus I was interested to learn how people have experienced discrimination in the ballet world so that I could be careful not to inadvertently hurt or offend someone.

I was also trying to understand how, in general, race could affect ballet and I have come to understand a little bit more about that now. I'm not saying all is equal here, but there does seem to be less of a concern about things like certain roles being played by people of different races, for example.

 

More importantly, does diverse always equal lack of discrimination? IME, the answer is usually no.

 

However, when I drop my child off at class or walk with her into the waiting room, we still get stares. I still hear conversations that are slightly 'off'. (The one I heard this past week was a doozy about types of black people that white children should see and shouldn't see. :rolleyes: ). My daughter has had odd interactions with other children who she sees several times a week. (IOW, they recognize her and should know who she is.)

 

So, for all of the beautiful diversity on the stage, and I mean that sincerely, there are still nutty occurrences behind the scenes.

 

The presence of diversity certainly does not indicate the absence of discrimination, you are completely right.

 

It makes me sad that your daughter is still stared at sometimes at ballet. It seems so odd to me that that happens. And the people white children should and shouldn't see?! That is simply absurd.

 

I think this thread has been eye-opening for me, because although I knew racism existed in the US, so often it appears, from other parts of the world, that it is less of a consideration than here. Some of the experiences in this thread indicate to me that perhaps, in some areas, it is MORE of a problem than here. Perhaps I simply live in a country which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination and in which these things are spoken about more? I don't know.

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Wow, this thread has really come along in just a short period of time. Wonderful! And great to see the diversity in thinking. Love BT4D

 

Our experience differs significantly from place to place, and my dd would blush to hear me share because she too does not see herself as a black dancer, but instead an aspiring ballerina. Let me preference we are not bi-racial. We are straight up black/Af-am w brown skin. However, my dd is foremost, not phased by drama. She would prefer to be among a group of serious but quirky dancers that don't take themselves so serious and love to find a good bargain. . She's also comes across as a long lean dancer w great extension that some will love and others don't have time for. I share that because social factors both within and outside the ballet world seriously influence the net result, in addition to the ability of the dancer. Its a matrix.

 

My dd was blessed to grow up in a predominantly white company where racial bias was never a factor, but potential and strong work ethic was critical. Parents and there lack of engagement with us, or looking down on us because of our skin complexion was an influence. When we didn't get invited to the birthday parties we had our own. I found it helpful to establish the table of misfits, and make sure it was clear that I'm here for my dd. I also love misfit parents they're the true heart and soul of the school. The school helped to make sure she felt comfortable in that classroom, and I was there to make sure she felt comfortable outside.

 

However when we began to test the water and changed schools (to a more diverse school) we experienced a couple of serious issues like the school director changing a cast because there were too many dancers of the same color in the role. The issues were no longer subtle but in your face. That opened our eyes and we were quick to take action. The casting had nothing to do with hard work and ability. Several years later, keeping that same focus and with some SÍ experience in her belt she understands that the experience she had with that individual was just a result of an awkward instructor, and not a reflection of ballet. She understands the warning signs to stay away from those individuals, and she also know when its about her ability to perform. She has a ballet body, but sometimes that's not enough its about feeling comfortable in your skin and your ability, and she's seen the social effects that other races put on their children that have just as serious issues. The social issues of some Caucasian children to be as thin as possible is just as much of a issue as having non-arched feet. So glad to see that this is a discussion board for dancers of color.

 

I've seen her watch on the side of the room, and be ready for the choreographer that doesn't understand what she brings to the table in the 30 min he had to select her, but still learn and be ready for the time when s/he knows they made a mistake. Dealing with adversity teaches me as a parent to have patience, and hopefully our dd's and ds's to turns that into energy. I'm still there to remind her that that she's got this, and listen to the corrections they're giving the other girl they like because they can't deny your training. Its the fire that she walked through that helps her to be a better dancer, and let's me know she's ready. I really feel sorry for the dancer that does not have a chance to dance with our diverse children and experience what they have. They think the world is rosey, and the sign of any disappointment a spiral down. So I say bring it on. It makes them stronger! For every one choreographer that pulls together a manila cast there are two more getting funding to cast a rainbow, and we need to support them. The world is becoming too diverse to stand by and watch.

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@swantobe I think there are things that an observer can see that the dancers can not see because you all are focused on understanding the demands of the art. Its the relationships that you all make as artists that help the next generation see the importance of ignoring the teachings at home and experience the true beauty of ballet.

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firedragon0800

Daffodilduds, thanks for sharing the article from the Washington Post.

 

Anyone looking at my or my dd would never guess that either of us are black. Of color yes, but not black. Grandmother is as black as coal, and in the south where she is from if you were 1/32 black you are black. I have worked in many industries and businesses which required travel all over. In some instances I have been indirectly/directly exposed to bigotry, racism, gross stereotypical judgements and derogatory comments. It always makes for an awkward silence or moment when I have had to discuss my ethnicity and sensitivity regarding their view or comment. I am also an avid sailor and have competed in sailboat racing in many of the top yatch clubs in the mid-west and northeast, talk about color not being represented, and on occasion I have faced these same uncomfortable occurrences. Unfortunately I have had the same issues within different homogenized groups, black, white and Asian. I have also had these same unfortunate incidents within my own family. In one example, I am willing to bet that Misty Copeland has had the same experience as I, in being described as not being black enough.

 

Thank God my dd, never met my Uncle Phil white who had a lifelong aversions to Asians, due to his experience in WWII, but loved me and my Dad. I'm sure though my dd would have turned him around. I would say that these instances were few and far between, but it exists and unfortunately exists in all cultures and in all environments, but it is no where near the level as it was 50-100 years ago, and to compare this now with what was going on then is in my view an affront to those that lived it then.

 

In the seven years my dd has been going to her pre/pro not once have I had or her a situation where anyone, teacher, student, parent etc. has made me uncomfortable in the ways I described above. Not saying it doesn't exist, because other parents of color have told me that they have been made to feel uncomfortable, but I personally have not seen this or been exposed to it. In the productions we have been involved in I have seen many complexions in children lead roles. I can't talk in subtleties or micro aggression cause if I were to go that way based on my own families behavior I would be questioning everything anyone said or did all the time.

 

I respect Jennfier Homan's historical perspective of ballet, having read most of her book it is easy to put the result we are living with today on the evolution of ballet. However, she seems to suggest that the AD's have a large role to play here and I have a different view. I am a single parent and my dd started dancing when she was five. There were 100 girls in her first class of 6/7 year olds. I was pleased to see kids of many backgrounds represented, all based on talent, but yes mostly white. Today seven years later there are three/four left and at 13/14 there are at least 3/4 more years of training left. Ballet is tough even when you are part of the majority. Even if you as part of the majority can get free tuition, commutation, food, gear, ballet tickets, summer intensives, privates, family support, doctors, tutors and world class top instruction and assessment for four/five/six/seven/eight/nine/ten years straight even then you are still not guaranteed a career in dance in a reputable company. The effort required for seemingly little benefit is extraordinary.

 

When my dd and I come out of the theater I see many other girls and boys like her that aspire to be on stage and ballerinas and they are likely studying ballet at the many schools and places all over the world. It is an expensive endeavor even if you have a prodigious amount of talent. This is the current captive audience of ballet today.

 

Which is why my belief is that it isn't the AD's issue, it is more an issue of patronage. Until we pick up a paper and see a huge gift to an institution of the arts on a consistent basis it will not change at the pace we want. We see people of color buying interests in professional sports teams, college, high schools and educational institutions, but I don't see the big bucks to the top ballet companies. If this were to change, this problem would go away so fast we'd ever wonder if it were a discussion thread at all.

 

AD's rely on ticket sales, tuition, small donation gifts - and yes $10k is small to these AD's - and donations to keep themselves and their institutions going. There is a financial risk to staging controversial ballets as to not alienate the current ballet audience and small patrons. I am not saying even that having someone of color in controversial, but certainly subject matter and style are always under scrutiny. Look at west side story, it took a patron to bring that to stage. The patron's role has always been to smooth or offset this financial risk. Patrons of color giving large money to take on these perceived risks is required to change it and quickly. If JayZ were to collaborate with a Peter Boal or Edward Villella on a major work to attract a new audience (which can sometimes take many years ) and it were successful, you would see it being adopted the world over.

 

However, they philanthropists can be caught in a catch 22, as giving to one of these institutions is perceived in their communities and their captive audience as wasted donor dollars when so many more kids can go to college on a sports scholarship or education scholarship. If JayZ or Michael Jordan were to give to these institutions would this have a backfire effect on their audience? Possibly.

 

However, if they were to take this financial risk away from the AD's and create works for a different audience we would see the complexion of the stage change. I think we will anyway, but it will take more time. If you don't have time for that, then sponsor a creative work.

 

This is in my view primarily why fifty years later after great initial progress there is so little to show for that effort.

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@firedragon0800 change is in the present with the fact that there are some who feel comfortable creTing the platform like Momof3darlings, those that are willing to bring up the issue and talk about the issue, and then those that understand the issue like @Swantobe. That's a huge change right there.

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LaFilleSylphide

Again, I don't think any of is who are lacking in these experiences are saying "bigotry doesn't exist", but perhaps saying that ballet is not the source. Parents and students and teachers Who are discriminating and awful are just that... Awful.

 

Ballet has issues, yes. Those lacking extension, turn out, long neck, hyper extension, flexibility, arched banana feet may be overlooked and unencouraged to continue. But I have been fortunate enough to not have been held back from dancing by being 100% not white. However, more often than not I have had more than one teacher ignore me completely for not having a dagger like tendu with insteps bulging out of my shoes.

 

I feel bad that parents of dd and ds of color feel like social outcasts in their communities, but to blame ballet and not the actual bigot seems strange to me. I'm also saddened that there aren't more students of color, but to be honest, in many more ethnic communities, pursuit of arts isn't exactly a career or past time prioritized by either the families or surroundings, so this maybe one of the reasons why classrooms seem to lack dancers of color, instead of the general idea that ballet is isolating and exclusive. I know that in the schools I attended, the students' skin color or ethnicity was never an issue or even something of notice, but having a paying talented student with supportive parents was the end all be all. Making ballet accessible to the general public,asking ballet affordable... I feel like that is a step toward diversity in and of itself.

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