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Achieving diversity and racial justice in ballet requires more black swans.

Achieving diversity and racial justice in ballet requires more black swans.

A ballet blanc, which translates literally to "white ballet," is a 19th century romantic form that honours white sylphs, swan, and ghost-like entities known as 'wilis.' Examples include La Sylphide, Giselle and Swan Lake. Ballet companies take pleasure in their corps de ballet's excellent coordination and symmetry when performing these renowned works.  


Though the idea of ballet dancers all in white tutus appears innocuous, the lack of advancement in racial diversity on show becomes clear when the demand for sameness leaks beyond ballet technique, generating the assumption that all performers should wear the same hair, skin colour, and body type. Felipe Domingos, a performer with Finnish National Ballet, describes being kicked out of a ballet due to his skin colour in an Instagram post. The choreographer informed him that the performance demanded homogeneity and therefore that his looks attracted too much attention.


These stories unfortunately happen far too frequently. Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be appointed as a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre (ABT), revealed to TIME that she felt pressured to brighten her complexion with makeup in order to blend in with the rest of the dancers. Gabe Stone Shayer, another ABT dancer of colour, shares his experience with prejudice in dancing in Dance Magazine. He studied at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, Russia, describing it as a venue where political correctness does not come in the way of development. These stories only graze the surface. Despite the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum, dancers have also gone to social media to express their experiences with racism in ballet, calling for the awaited true equality reform.


Copeland shared an Instagram image from the previous year of two white ballet dancers practising in black body painting for a Bolshoi staging of La Bayadère. It is heartbreaking to think about how many major ballerina organisations decline to recruit ballerinas of colour and would instead utilise blackface, according to Copeland. In response, Vladimir Urin, head of the Bolshoi Theater, informed Russia's RIA Novosti media outlet that the dance La Bayadère has been presented hundreds of times in this staging in Russia as well as abroad, claiming that the Bolshoi Theatre will never be engaged in such a debate.


Even now, ballet's euro-centric shows from over a century ago frequently establish a story that associates Blackness primarily with enslavement. Traditionalism frequently brings with it outdated, hurtful themes, which can only be changed by engaging in productive debates about racial issues, diversity, and inclusion.


Race equity in classical ballet is more complicated than simply banning blackface on stage. Racism in ballet isn't often as obvious. Consider the pointe shoes, a ballerina's defining sign. These gleaming satin slippers that enable ballerinas to fly all across the floor on tiptoe are usually available in a pale pink "flesh" colour. Performers with dark skin colours must spend additional time to "pancake" their shoes using makeup or dye when dancing without tights in order to just have shoes that complement their complexion. Pointe shoe manufacturers such as Bloch, Freed, Suffolk, Capezio, and Grishko have only lately revealed plans to begin producing colours to fit darker complexions.


True transformation in ballet does not begin with a single conversation or the addition of more pointe shoe hues. It will take a systemic transformation to accept black figures and let go of the idea that all ballet dancers must look the same. Even now, decades after Suzanne Farrell’s stint with NYCB, industry conservatives cling to this rigorous aesthetic, frequently mistaking a waif-like figure with the ability to dance elegantly. As a result, this produces a problematic paradigm in which many Black dancers are chastised for being too "strong," "muscular," and "curvy."


Misty Copeland has harnessed her popularity to provoke discussions about representation of minorities in ballet. She is not, however, the only one. Michaela DePrince, a Dutch National Ballet soloist, grew up as an abandoned child in Sierra Leone. She was captivated by a pink tutu-clad dancer on a magazine cover. In her biography, Deprince describes her journey to becoming a world-renowned dancer. Precious Adams, the English National Ballet's First Artist, was chastised for not sporting pink tights on performance. Instead, she dresses in brown tights that complement her skin tone.


Dancers of colour like Copeland, DePrince, and Adams are great examples of 21st-century ballerinas, even if there are very few Black dancers in significant classical companies.


American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié was inspired by Copeland, who received her first ballet instruction in a sports hall just at Boys & Girls Club. This is an ABT program to increase diversity of races and cultures in classical ballet by collaborating with said Boys & Girls Club of America that would provide workshops that discover exceptional children and link them with world-class instruction.


Ballet should keep attracting future ones and reflect its diverse communities in order to thrive. More children from diverse backgrounds may discover they enjoy the art form if they have access to training options. Ballet, hopefully, will progress to the point where all ballerinas, regardless of their ethnicity or race, feel accepted in studios and can envisage a career on stage.