Ballerinas of Color and the Changing Palette of Dance

Photo courtesy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

My heart sang when I read Rohina Katoch Sehra’s Huffington Post article about the impact of Ballerinas of Color on the world of dance, and I am exited to share it with readers of Arts & Culture Connections.

“How Ballerinas of Color are Changing the Palette of Dance” includes interviews with African-American women who are performing classical ballet and are making their mark in different parts of the United States. I was both impressed and proud of these young women, who are standing in their truth.

I also was delighted to learn that one of the ballerinas interviewed has joined forces with another to form the Negus Ballerina Project, to share the importance of Black Women/Women of Color in classical ballet training and to uplift, mentor and support them in their efforts.

I recognize that there is still very limited equity and inclusion of people of color in classical ballet, despite the fact that Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) was formed more than 50 years ago. Nonetheless, Ms. Sehra’s report reminded me of the vision and determination of DTH founder, the late Arthur Mitchell. As I shared in my book, Invitation to the Party, my work with DTH was to break down the barriers and false beliefs that ballet was an art form with no relevance to African-Americans.

I remember speaking with community leaders around the country, who sometimes referred to ballet as “white dance” and questioned why they should attend a performance. I also recall working on audience development in Los Angeles for an upcoming DTH performance. Part of this effort was door-to-door outreach. While visiting families who lived in the projects in South Central L.A., a mother told me: “I am trying to feed my family. I don’t have time to go see ballet dancers!” I replied: “You have to make time so that your daughters can dream of a future outside of this building.” She looked at me and, for a second, I wasn’t sure what she was going to do. But then she nodded and said: “I will bring my girls.”

So, when I read about these young, Black ballerinas bringing “Black Girl Magic” and sensibilities to this very Eurocentric art, I am ecstatic! The ballerinas of color in DTH, who danced around, over and through the cultural barriers of their time—barriers that were both inside and outside the African American community—danced with dignity and composure to showcase perfection and possibility.

Those DTH performances also opened doors to communities of color enabling this current generation of ballerinas of color to Jeté and Pas de Bourrée with even more finesse and elan! Each of the young women profiled in Ms. Sehra’s article also shared the barriers they overcame to perform ballet—from breaking down the barriers within their own minds to breaking through the perceptions of what a ballerina “should” look like. Their presence in the field has even prompted some manufacturers to begin producing pointe shoes and tights in a wider spectrum of colors.

Ultimately, the efforts to expand Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the classical arts comes down to access to training. I agree with the point made in the article by Courtney Taylor Key, co-founder of Negus Ballerina Project, when she advocates the need for funding for children of color to have access to all classical art forms from a very young age. She said: “If Black and Brown students had more access, it wouldn’t be such a culture shock. It wouldn’t be so foreign to see someone doing something you only think about and keep to yourself. Sometimes seeing is believing. If more children of color saw what they can become, they would believe that it is possible.”

Let’s continue to work to give children a vision of what is possible in the world of arts and culture; let’s continue to expand opportunities for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access. As always, I’m interested in what you think. Please share your thoughts below or email me at donna@donnawalkerkuhne.com.

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