July 24, 2022—Two years ago, Chrystyn Mariah Fentroy, principal dancer for the Boston Ballet, wrote an essay in Pointe Magazine following the murder of George Floyd. This excerpt caught my attention:
“All of this amounts to the realization that no matter what work you put in, your dancing will always be overshadowed by your skin color… Yet our resilience is clear. We continue to show up because despite the systemic racism that follows us like a shadow every day, we have the right to be here… above all, our entire community is empowered to fight with everything we have until we are seen as equals.”
Since the publication of Chrystyn’s essay, there has been more reporting about the challenge of being a Black ballet dancer—from the “Dancing While Black…” report to a recent article about the need to diversify the hairstyles of Black ballet dancers.
Most recently, that determination to “be seen as equals” showed up on the stage of the Kennedy Center earlier this summer when it premiered Reframing the Narrative, a program of Black-identifying ballet dancers from across the country and Europe, along with performances by three renowned Black ballet companies—Dance Theatre of Harlem, Atlanta’s Ballethnic, and the Memphis-based Collage Dance Collective.
Reframing the Narrative was curated by Theresa Ruth Howard, former dancer and founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, and Denise Saunders Thompson, president and chief executive of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. It also featured the work of renowned choreographer Donald Byrd and the music of Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence Carlos Simon.
The goal of the two-week creative process and the performance was to provide Black ballet dancers, who are often the only or one of a few members in a ballet company, an opportunity to experience what it was like to work where “Blackness is centered in the art.” The program also sought to acknowledge the artistry and leadership of Black ballet dancers, which has contributed to and shaped ballet across the globe, while reframing the narrative with the untold and unheard stories of these contributions.
Theresa Ruth Howard and her organization, Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet), will continue the spotlight on Blacks in Ballet with a symposium next month at the Sanctuary of the Arts in Coral Gables, FL. The theme of the symposium, which will be held August 7-13, 2022, is “Motivation. Innovation. Activation. Drafting a New Blueprint for Ballet.” It will feature high caliber dance training and mentoring to advanced and intermediate dancers by faculty and mentors, along with developmental courses for dance educators and studio owners.
I applaud all of these important voices working to reframe the narrative for Blacks in Ballet. With time and consistent efforts such as these, I believe, the culture will shift and become much more inclusive throughout the ballet industry. Bravo!
I would like to know what you think about the spotlight on Blacks in ballet? I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.
PS: Be sure to check out MoBBallet’s Constellation Project, a comprehensive digital history of African-American contributions to ballet.