Raven Wilkinson in Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Les Sylphides, 1955-1961  (Fair use image)

White privilege. If you were a white child and wanted to be a ballet dancer, you were able to sign up for a dance class, purchase toe shoes, satin ribbon, and tights in a pink color to match your skin, and be on your way to pursue your dancing dreams. White dancers never worried about finding a class, auditioning, or possibly rising to the top if they worked hard. You were encouraged by dancers on a stage who looked just like you. White dancers always had visual representation. White privilege doesn’t mean your life has been easy, it just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things making it harder.

Despite the success of Misty Copeland and Michaela dePrince, the dance world seems slow to accept people of color as ballerinas. There are many reasons for lack of diversity in ballet: ballet training is extremely expensive, not the right color, not the right body type, segregated dance schools, outright racism, and failure on the part of schools and companies to support young dancers of color on the road to success. Very few dancers of ethnicity find a place in the professional world of classical ballet, much less become a principal dancer. Young African American girls and boys, who wanted to grow up and become ballerinas, did not have representation by seeing anyone pirouetting on stage that looked like them. Many African American ballerinas ended up turning to other forms of dance while joining African American dance troupes and companies, or worst case, they gave up their dancing dreams completely.

Once African American ballerinas were accepted to white ‘elite’ programs, very rarely would they get a starring role. There was no ballet attire that matched their skin color. Many African American ballerinas were told to wear make-up to lighten their skin. Most painted their toe shoes, ribbons and tights brown to blend in with their darker skin. Another slow acceptance and obstacle for dancers of color.

It is important to realize that for decades, African American ballerinas have been painting their pink shoes with mixtures of foundations and dying satin ribbons and tights. You can even find directions for this on YouTube. Shoes should blend in with the leg and not ruin the line of one’s body. All of this at a great expense and very time consuming. In 2018 a company in England began manufacturing brown toe shoes, ribbons, and tights to match a person of color’s skin. Something so simple like this took years and years to happen. Brown and bronze toe shoes are definitely a very welcome change; it is a sign that the ballet world is slowly opening to people of color.  To view images of these ballet shoes, please visit Alex Marshall’s article ‘Brown Paint Shoes Arrive, 200 Years After White Ones’ (2018) from The New York Times.

There are many prominent African American ballet dancers who have overcome obstacles to get here. Their history is important in this journey to racial equality into the ballet world. Netflix’s documentary, “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” spotlights producer, director, and choreographer Debbie Allen’s career and follows her group of students as they prepare for her annual “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” Social Media offers many venues to discover the names and talents of these dancers: Instagram-Black Girls Do Ballet; Facebook’s Brown Girls Do Ballet. Some are self-taught dancers from a book, many started famous companies, such as Alvin Ailey; all have a story to tell. Below are a few that are highlighted but there are many more of their stories that should be researched and shared.

In 2015 Misty Copeland, from Kansas City, Missouri, became the first African American prima ballerina of a major international company, American Ballet Theatre (ABT).  Aside from her work on stage, she continues to inspire and encourage diversity in ballet, especially in the next generation. Copeland also wrote a children’s book called ‘Bunheads’, an ode to friendship in the dance studio.

Raven Wilkinson was the first African American to be part of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1955. She had been the first to start touring all during the 1950s. The first time Misty Copeland saw Wilkinson’s photo, it sparked something in her that made her feel she had a responsibility beyond her own ballet career; a responsibility to be a voice, a representation of hope for future and past brown ballerinas.

1951 Janet Collins was the first and only African American to become a Prima Ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She was told she would have to perform with make-up to make her skin lighter. She refused and went on to build a strong, successful dancing career on her own terms.

Judith Jamison is best known as an innovative modern dancer for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She actually began her career as a ballerina. She was asked to join Alvin Ailey dancers in 1964. In 1993, she took over as artistic director at Alvin Ailey, after the passing of Ailey. She is internationally famous and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Dance.  A famous quote from Jamison is, “To share our humanity is what we’re here for.”

In 1978 Anna Benna Sims was the first African American dancer to sign a contract with the ABT, as well as their first soloist. Sims was very outspoken about the role race played in her career. Sims wanted to be the best at what she does in spite of racism. She wondered if her height was an excuse not to be hired, rather than her race. Sims wittingly says she hasn’t been doing the “white” acts of ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Gisslle,’ but there is a bit of slush in the ‘Snow’ section of Peter Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nucracker Suite.’

Continue reading and viewing photographs about the top 25 African American women who paved the way for diversity on the stage. 

There are African American ballerinas dancing in Russia, Switzerland, Canada and all over the United States. Ballerina Lauren Anderson noted, “It seems like there can only be one African American dancer taking on principal parts, but actually there have been quite a few dancers of color that have done principal roles.” These women are all amazing in their work ethic and perseverance.

White privilege is still lurking around, big places and small. Racism is a threat to the well-being of millions of people. It is important everyone has access to power and resources so it is not just a privilege for some. Using these assets help lead to changes in behavior, paying attention, recognizing that people of color need toe shoes of color; doing ally and advocacy work, such as the Allies for Racial Justice; recognizing and acting against forms of oppression and privilege, such as voting rights. Something as big as getting a promotion to something as simple as the color of toe shoes; both are important. We all have something to offer in the art world, especially dancers. Racial equality extends in that genre but it is up to all of us to make sure there is visual representation for all people of color, in dance, in life, for now and for younger generations.

 

References:

Marshall, A. (2018). ‘Brown Paint Shoes Arrive, 200 Years After White Ones’, The New York Times, November 4. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/arts/dance/brown-point-shoes-diversity-ballet.html (Accessed on 4 April 2021).