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Ballet Diversity: African Americans in Ballet


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This is such a great discussion thread. Thanks to Ballet Talk, I have learned so much about navigating the ballet world. While I agree with with many previous posters regarding the lmited number of AA ballerinas due to different body types, rigorous training and expense, racial attitudes, notions of beauty in classical ballet, etc (I also believe it is changing for the better!), I wonder if something else is also at play. Whenever I'm with my DD and someone discovers that she is a dancer, that person automatically assumes that she is interested in Alvin Ailey. Let me just say that we LOVE Ailey: we see them every year when they come here, I donate to their programs, so this is not a critique of Ailey. Nor is it a critique of DTH. What I am wondering is whether there is the perception for some AA dancers that Ailey is more attainable, and classical ballet is not. I think some of this partly might be why so many AA dancers dropped out of my daughter's class and pursued other forms of dance. While DTH was on hiatus and/or operating on a limited scale, Ailey has gained significant ground in terms of donors, talented dancers, marketing, etc. The cultural imprint of Ailey in the AA community is undeniably strong. But my daughter wants to dance classical ballet (for now), preferably on pointe. I am encouraged to hear the strides that Virginia Johnson is making at DTH. She certainly has her work cut out for her in rebuilding that base of classically trained ballet dancers for the new company by 2014. I'm also encouraged by the changing perceptions and new opportunites at other ballet companies for AA ballerinas, especially for DD.

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Momof3darlings

Julisha--I've moved your post to start a new topic, I hope you don't mind. Your thoughts provided a good jumping off point. I'll come back later to add to your discussion but am running out right now so want to gather some thoughts first. I hope in the meantime others will add on.

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I know some dancers who performed or trained at Alvin Ailey during different parts of their careers. Not all were AA. One was an Asian ballerina and the other a white male modern dancer--who made a great career as a modern dancer and has been a sought after modern choreographer for the past 20 years. I think there may be a perception that Alvin Ailey school/company is more open to people of all races and different body types, which is the truth. Not to mention at the professional school and the evening division there is also a variety of classes taught and not just modern. I've taken ballet in their "regular people" division and the classes are packed with dancers (some obviously pros) of all ethnicities. I'm sure the competition is extremely fierce to get into the company. But the openness and diversity probably gives people the hope that there is a chance for them. Why wouldn't it? On the other hand, you attend the ballet (I cannot speak for company auditions since I've never done a ballet company audition) and see a few non-white dancers over and over and you realize you are going to have to be a pioneer or break down a barrier to get in. Of course there will be some people who will take that on because they believe they have the talent/experience/personality to do so, but not all will do so. Some will look for a road that has already been paved. (And I'm not judging anybody either way, just stating my opinion).

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I think some AA dancers might gravitate towards Alvin Ailey or DTH but I don't think most do. I think it all depends on personal preference. I actually think it was more telling that someone else assumed she was aspiring to dance at Alvin Ailey. Both Ailey and DTH are great companies that have a lot to offer any dancer. I especially like that they are not exclusively AA but that they welcome all ethnicities :D !

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Momof3darlings

I don't know if it's the attainable quotient that makes people ask or simply that they are exposed to Ailey and DTH and believe that this is the epitome of success for a dancer of color. DD got that Ailey question quite alot and we had to explain over and over again that Ailey, while a great company, was not a ballet company and DD wanted to dance Classical Ballet. It was hard for people to understand that not only did DD not want to dance there, she was not a fit to dance there in style. People know that AA men have been able to break the barriers, but they are not as familiar with this for women.

 

I also am amazed at the number of people who have children of color dancing, but cannot name any African American female ballet dancers but Misty Copeland. I know that they may be few and far between but there have been some who braved the trail long before Misty was even born. Not to take away from her by any stretch of the imagination. But our children need to know who these trail blazers are and that they existed. They need to see them and follow their work if they can find it so they know that they are not alone and that it can be done if they want to still try despite the odds.

 

We need to remember than while we have come a long way, 1968 or 69 when DTH's school was first formed is not really that long ago. And we need to understand the reasons why it was formed. I was 10 and while I can be considered old now, it's something I still remember. It was not so long ago that it wasn't in my lifetime. So to me, the answer to why people assume Ailey or why there are just now beginning to be larger numbers of African American female dancers is pretty clear. It's because we are just now getting to the time where we can look back and remember seeing other dancers of color who reach their golden ticket and looked like us. The first of anything takes a long time, and then you muster along here or there for a while with one here and one there. I find it promising that you can find African American female dancers in many companies today or in recent years in others. Part of the issue in knowing this is that some of the companies are non-ranked so you will not hear of a Principal female dancer because those companies don't technically have them. And everyone is waiting for the next Principal dancer. But I can think of dancers we know either currently or in the last 6 years in several companies: SFB, Houston, Joffrey, Atlanta, Nashville, Nevada Ballet Theatre, Ballet Austin, Georgia Ballet are just to name a few.

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Here's a link to a brief article about Sandra Organ Solis, who was the first African-American ballerina at Houston Ballet in 1981. She does mention in the article that she started putting "AA" in her bio because she was so lightskinned that no one knew she was AA. It's interesting that she started her own dance company in 1997 because there wasn't enough diversity in the dance audience...

 

http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metrop...an/7429140.html

 

Here's also a link to a short interview with Tai Jimenez:

 

 

And here's an article from 2007 about the lack of black ballerinas:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/arts/dan...729&ei=5070

 

It mentions Tai Jimenez, Misty Copeland and someone else.

 

Are there any AA ballerinas that have risen to soloist/principal status since 2007? (Actually I'd be happy to seem some in the corps--I know some of you say that is happening but I haven't seen it yet).

 

There is something else I want to say about this that I will add in another post.

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I wanted to write this separately because it relates to the topic, but is not factual--just my opinion and I'm not a pro-ballerina.

 

I take ballet classes now recreationally, but when I was in grad school (early 90s) I took dance classes at the university and there were not any black male or female dancers either. Neither in modern or ballet. Granted this was a school in the midwest so the number of minorities was low to begin with, but it was at the time the 3rd in the nation in college dance programs. So you would think there would be more outsiders flocking to the school. To date they still have no minority faculty in dance either. I did have a Chinese (from China) modern teacher who was a grad student in dance one semester there.

 

In addition to the discrimination that may or may not be present in schools and companies, I think that the pool of potential dancers is so much smaller than white students, that the few that make it to the college or professional level is quite small. We've mentioned a lot of factors why the pool is so small but I always wanted to throw out there, if ballet is even appealing to a lot of female AA dancers. I ask this because although I knew a lot of AA girls only knew one who made it as a career. The others quit by high school and in many cases ballet was something they were made to do and many preferred African, jazz or modern dance.

 

I like ballet but I don't love it. For me it has always been a way to keep in shape and cross train for OTHER types of dance. The image of a ballerina does nothing for me but I'm surrounded by many women of ages 30-70 in the classes I take (mostly white and a few Asian) who just love tutus, and ballerinas, and floating, and sylphs, etc. I just do NOT relate. I also feel sad sometimes because ballet to me is not natural and does not exploit the natural curves and shape of a woman's body. I feel like a prisoner sometimes in ballet because of this. I realize this is just MY opinion, but I wonder if this image of delicate floating pink ballerina also does not jive with many other AA and hispanic women. I am much happier in a flamenco, samba or belly dance class because the female body is appreciated and accentuated and also the image of the woman is much stronger, although definitely still feminine, but in a different way.

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Just wanted to point out that there is actually no reason (beyond the preferences of artistic directors, with whom I vehemently disagree) that women in ballet cannot have curves. Lynn Seymour, for example, did not have today's typical ballerina body, but she remains one of the most fascinating dance-actresses of the twentieth century--and she had gorgeous lines! The extremely thin look did not really take hold until the 1970's and 80's--and I am patiently waiting for it to go away already.

 

I think it is easy to look at a certain rep and get a certain impression of available roles, much as it is possible to look only at bel canto opera and assume that nearly every soprano role involves going insane at the drop of a hat. It is also certainly the case that many (perhaps most) US ballet companies perform a miniscule portion of the vast ballet repertoire that exists, and so the stereotype is perpetuated.

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I disagree that the idea of a floating pink ballerina does not jive with many AA women and hispanic women. As an AA woman myself I love and always have loved the color pink, whimsical things, and tutus. I believe that this idea of the "tough" black or latina woman actually perpetuates many negative stereotypes about black women and latina women being tough and aggressive and sassy.

 

Personal preferences differ for sure but I would not generalize an entire race which I know was not your intention, luceroblanco. :D There are plenty of Caucasian and Asian women who wouldn't be caught dead any where near a barre and who wouldn't even wear a tutu on halloween.

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Momof3darlings

lucero-unfortunately, I believe you are speaking is stereotypical fashion when you try to explain without meaning to, but it is still coming across that way. Having drafted a couple of posts myself on the other thread and then re-drafting them or deciding to wait until I am not time constrained before posting, I can say that this is just a hard topic to discuss when one has deeper feelings and thoughts to bring to the table and this might be a good time to take a deep breath and slow down so that your thoughts can come across as I know they are intended.

 

We are not sitting across from each other with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) where someone can interrupt you, point out where we've differed and then stop the conversation to clear up misunderstanding midstream. So it's important if we want to remain productive that we do so without so many points in one post to dig through. It is also important to take this part of the conversation from the original post. Deep breaths.....deep breaths!

 

I will start with one since this is a question that came from my post:

 

Are there any AA ballerinas that have risen to soloist/principal status since 2007? (Actually I'd be happy to seem some in the corps--I know some of you say that is happening but I haven't seen it yet).

 

I think you may have missed where I have stated that in a non-ranked company, there is no true Principal status although there may be perceived Principal dancers. Therefore, there have been dancers who have danced Principal roles here and there but the dance media has not recognized them because the company itself is not a major one or a ranked one. As well, when there have been African American dancers in companies that are not NY ranked companies, there seems to be less press about them. Lauren Anderson is an example, while she was Principal dancer at Houston for some time, you do not see her mentioned that often and I believe this is simply because of preconceived notions that unless it is a NY company, then we have not "arrived". I do believe though that she retired around 2006 or 7 so would not be included totally in your question. The same thought process can apply to Toni Doctor at Atlanta Ballet and Erica Lynn Edwards at Joffrey Ballet. (I believe Toni has retired) While they are/were not ranked as Principal dancers, I believe they both have danced principal roles from time to time in companies that do not rank or rank differently than the big names. Therefore, they cannot be added to your question about rising through the ranks to Principal. However, the National dance press has not keyed in on either of them simply because they did/do not hold the title Principal or dance in NYC. This does not mean that these role models are still not few and far between, but it does mean that there has been some ommission of knowledge and chances for our younger dancers to see "dancers like them" simply because we only allow that success would be a Principal dancer in those two NY biggies. I find that sad, because it means that there are hosts of children who know Misty Copeland (which is a good thing) but have not heard of Lauren Anderson or Toni Doctor or Erica Edwards, etc. I am not saying this to discount the issues many dancers in those big companies have faced in the glass ceiling of sorts, that has been evident and explained by them in many articles. But I think it's time we also begin to bring forth those who have achieved success in other places than NYC as valid role models as well.

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Yes, momof3darlings, thank you for those names. I had heard of Lauren Anderson, but not of Toni Doctor or Erica Lynn Edwards. I just saw an article on Whitney Huell in Dance Magazine (January 2011 issue). http://www.dancemagazine.com/issues/January-2011/25-To-Watch

She is with Ballet West and was named on the "25 to Watch" list. I went to the Ballet West website and she is listed in the corps. So she's not a soloist (YET), but I'm adding her to my list of dancers to follow. Also, DD and I have been watching Courtney Lavine of ABT (she was in ABT II, then was an apprentice, and is now in the corps) because she is from our area and attended DD's ballet school.

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This radio interview might be of interest in this thread. Brenda Edwards, who was a soloist with English National Ballet and the first black woman to work in a British ballet company, talks about the relationship between black dancers and ballet

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/2001_48_wed_02.shtml

 

Brenda Edwards is British, though, not African-American - so I'm not sure if this is relevant to this thread.

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  • Momof3darlings changed the title to Ballet Diversity: African Americans in Ballet

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