Brown Ballerinas: Breaching Color Barriers

Misty Copeland made headlines as one of the first mainstream ballerinas of color, but the ballet world still has a race problem. (Photo by Gilda N. Squire, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

There are a lot of places in the world that are practically colorless.

Of course, you know I don’t mean color as in green or blue or pink — I’m referring to skin color. In the absence of color when you do see it, initially it’s surprising, like the bleed of a red splotch on a white canvas. But surprise is not always a bad thing.

Those color-light industries and places are far and few between these days, thankfully. The world is slowly, as Shonda Rhimes likes to say, normalizing itself and including people of all shades in all facets of life and work, as it should.

That includes the world of ballet.

Pop quiz. Name one mainstream black ballerina who is not Misty Copeland. How about the male equivalent? And anyone from the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre doesn’t count. Nothing? Don’t feel bad. I couldn’t do it either. That’s because today, according to a lovely package I just read on Mashable, the world of ballet still has a race problem.

Fortunately, companies like Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theatre of Harlem are helping to change the perception of ballet as a primarily white world. They’re making it less acceptable to think that a uniform ballet aesthetic is all that is desirable and right and beautiful; they confirm that seeing a brown face or kinky hair does not mean less than in regards to level of talent or in respectability; that brown skin does not automatically mean a bigger body with wider hips and an almost masculine musculature.

Unfortunately, the Mashable piece pointed out that the existence of companies like Dance Theatre of Harlem allows the white companies the perfect cop out to skate by on being inclusive. I can almost hear the theater directors now: These institutions are successful, they are creative, they are storied, and they provide a place for brown ballerinas.

But that place is far too small. Barring — pun intended — brown ballerinas from mainstream theater companies leaves far too many talented dancers out in the cold, for no reason other than the color of their skin. When Dance Theatre of Harlem closed its doors for eight years in 2004, only one of its dancers earned a place in an American ballet company. One. Of course, I wasn’t there. And if I had been, I don’t have the skill to judge who should earn a place in a ballet company or not. But it does seem odd, that lonely number one.

Like so many conversations and challenges about race and inclusion — regardless of industry — the issue is not a lack of talent but a battle against antiquated perceptions. And like so many battles, the road ahead will be a slippery one of advance and retreat, saying and showing the same things over and over until the norm is changed, and the pipeline of brown ballerinas currently being trained are given a chance to take center stage.