Ballet is an artistic dance form that has been practiced since the 19th century. The classical art form attracts fans of many different ethnic backgrounds with its graceful movements and use of pointe shoes. And it also brings racism. Black dancers have been sharing their experiences and are ready for a change.
For years ballet has suffered from the lack of diversity due to economic inequality and the lack of support for dancers of color to succeed professionally. 65.9 percent of ballet dancers are White women, while only 2.27 percent of ballerinas are Black women.
Ballet’s racist and prejudiced past
There is a big elephant in the room when it comes to the well-known art form and that is its racist past. A past that still thrives in the ballet world today. Many dancers have stepped out to talk about the prejudice that infects the art, including Rachel Moore, who is an executive director at the American Ballet Theater School in New York City.
“I’ve heard from the mouths of dance professionals that Black dancers categorically cannot become ballet dancers because they don’t have the right body,” says Moore.
Chloé Lopes Gomes
Another dancer that has spoken out on the prejudice and racism that flows through the industry is Chloé Lopes Gomes. In 2018, Gomes became the first Black ballet dancer to join Berlin’s Principal Ballet Company.
In a personal essay published on CNN, she shared her experiences of racism, offensive comments, and unfair treatment.
“I have suffered depression and humiliation – and I am far from the only dancer who has experienced derogatory comments and verbal abuse during my career,” said Gomes. “There have been many damaging stereotypes that Black dancers aren’t flexible enough or don’t have the right feet. Till this day ballet is designed for White dancers from the shoes and make-up.”
In addition to this, there was an incident of racism at the Bolshoi Theater in Russia, which caused Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theater’s first African American woman principal dancer, to speak out. She called the theater out for its use of blackface in their performances.
Copeland had shared a photo of two ballerinas from the Bolshoi Theater, who were posed in blackface before their performance of a classical ballad “La Bayadére,” a tragic love story set in India.
Copeland wrote, “And this is the reality of the ballet world” as the caption.
Many commenters were taking up for the dancers and the theater, but Copeland didn’t let them silence her.
“I’m tired of giving the oppressors the benefit of the doubt,” she replied. “They need to be exposed, called out, educated and more. I have lived in the ballet world for 25 years. I have silenced myself around ‘them’ and made them feel comfortable and suffered in silence. At 37 I feel ready and free to stop.”
Copeland has been outspoken about the matters of race in the dance form such as hair, body type, and skin color.
In 2018, she told CNN that the ballet world “doesn’t really celebrate or have women of color.”
This has been an issue that she is working hard to change.
Copeland also reached out on Twitter in regards of the incident. She wrote, “I get that this is a VERY sensitive subject in the ballet world. But until we can call people out and make people uncomfortable, change can’t happen.”
Although racism and prejudice continue to overtake ballet, hopefully, things can change for future ballerinas of color, with the help of today’s ballet dancers speaking out to spark a change.
Chalise Thomas is a Mass Communications major at Albany State University. She lives in Jonesboro, GA