Ballet & the Passable White Standard…

edit: Post number 200! Apparently it is a big deal on wordpress and you get a little sticker! Thanks for all of the love and support.

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Is passable white alright? The media has been covering ethnicity in ballet a lot lately, and as much as that is appreciated… and as beneficial as I think it is… the reality is, I don’t think they are covering the right thing…. They are covering the fluff of race. So, because I have nothing to lose, or a lot to lose, who knows, I thought I would once again touch again on ethnicity in ballet… Whether we like to or not, and as uncomfortable as it makes us, that’s okay because we aren’t talking about it in the open… we are blogging about it. 🙂 So if you are reading this and feeling squirmish and are ready to click away, that’s okay too, but shame on you… And if you are ready to start the conversation that really matters… Let’s go!

While Eric Underwood brought up the need for manufacturers to create an ethnic look to ballet aesthetics… The bigger problem I think solely boils down to two positions… positions that made me start this blog, positions that have me so frustrated, so irritated, that it makes me wonder why I haven’t applied to be one somewhere bigger to start making a change… Artistic Directors and School Directors. DUN DUN DUN! *if I could add dramatic music I would*

While I sketch dancers around the world, I have noticed the lack of color in my digital palette… Which wasn’t very surprising… but what was more surprising was the unfortunate ignorance of people writing into my blog criticizing “me and my apparent lack of knowledge about ballet, Misty Copeland, and Under Armour… ” So, I took a moment to rant to myself before blogging, and now that I have taken more cold medicine and had chicken noodle soup, I can cohesively put some thoughts together.

Diversity in ballet is clearly in the lack… but at the same time, not all ethnicities, or individuals are created equal. Unfortunately, in ballet, the paper bag and ruler principle applies, silently. Then again this principle was never just written out for the world, well it was…. but you get the idea…  If you don’t know what this is, it is a principle that was used/ still used to justify ethnicity, human rights, education and entitlement stemming from colonialism and slavery. It is basically, not to sound cruel, if your skin is as light or lighter than a paper bag, and your hair is as straight as a ruler, you are favored and thus “passable white”… If you look at most professional ethnic dancers at major ballet companies… on stage… with makeup and pink tights… they are passable white.

Ballet companies defend themselves when asked about race with three arguments… well they aren’t really arguments but sad, hide behind a truth statement with a shitty truthful statement. Mostly US companies, because I have yet to see a European company actually put out a statement to defend their position…
1. We employ diverse dancers from around the world… That is truthful, but the reality is all of these dancers are passable white: Korea, Japan, China, Cuba, Spain, Europe, etc…
2. We employ the most talented dancers, and the competition for contracts is extremely stiff. Again, a sad truth…. The problem can’t be fixed at the moment… (will go into this below)
3. Ballet is a visually aesthetic art form, so we have to create a cohesive look for our company. Again a horrible truth. You must ask yourself, how can we love, obsess over, devote our lives to an art form that silently reflects racism? and yes it is racism, preference is still considered a cause of microaggressions.

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So dear readers, the answer isn’t to boycott the ballet because if we stop going to ballet performances there would be no companies for us to watch… And the answer is definitely not writing in angry hate mail… that gets you nowhere… You could start a blog like myself as an option… Companies can’t just go randomly find ethnic dancers on the street and pull them into the company and say, “You are a principal dancer”.. They actually have to blend with the company’s style of dancing and technique… That is true… So, here is what has to happen to see diversity in ballet…. And truthfully… sorry to those who have written in… you have to have good technique… period. Regardless of ethnicity….

Option 1: Replace the current heads of major companies…. Like no offense to Australian Ballet but David needs to go…. And as much as I love Peter Martins… his time is probably up as well…. Royal Ballet has been bouncing around directors… so he’s probably on the way out anyways…. Paris Opera made a smart move with Benjamin but is now replacing him with goddess Aurelie Dupont sooo maybe that is good… I think even Bolshoi and Mariinsky’s directors are ready for a change… Here is the reason why:
These directors were brought up in the age of conservative ballet, and as they learned to be in a company, perform and create they learned in an environment that was safe, reserved and untouched… They are part of the generation of classical ballet…. Classical ballet is dying… Or is dead. Companies just don’t perform the classics anymore… Which ironically, companies use the classics as their defense for a black corps member to stand out in…. Well…. if you look at what is performing next weekend…. EVERYTHING seems to be contemporary… Like no joke: Boston, Tulsa, Atlanta, Richmond, Stuttgart, and the list goes on and on. Soooooo, again… bad artistic directors… sorry if I offend any of you reading this, but it is true…. :/

Most of these AD’s grew up dancing, when dancing was still, or is still a privilege… which is a great mindset to instill in students, but elitism is never a good thing. It is a privilege to dance, yes… but it isn’t something that is given, it is earned…

Option 2: Replace the school directors… and when I saw directors I mean even the teachers and the board….
A ballet school is where everything needs to start… There are so few dance jobs to begin with, that we have to be fair from the beginning, and this would start at the ballet school level. In order for it to be a “fair” playing field for jobs, you would have to have the world’s ethnic representation ratio in ballet dancers… Which is like quite impossible… but fun to think about. But if African American dancers make up less than 2% of the world’s professional ballet dancers (Not modern, not contemporary) that isn’t very hopeful… But if we were to look at the percentages from the world’s population database, as of 2014 people of
African or of African Origin decent are 13.5% of the world’s population…. While whites of European decent make up 12.9% of the worlds population…. Asian/Pacific islanders make up 57% of the worlds population… and Latin/Latin Decent make up 8.7%….

So if you took a worldwide company like say…. American Ballet Theatre… That isn’t very hopeful… and if you look at Paris Opera or Bolshoi… well… it doesn’t get any better… BUT, in Europe’s defense… most of their companies are state companies, so it make sense to hire dancers from their own countries… Kind of… because they don’t always follow those rules… *cough cough* royal ballet *cough cough*
I really don’t know why Royal Ballet irks me the most when it comes to ethnicity… Oh yeah, I remember why… Thier school has a huge influx of Asians and other ethnicities in their upper school… but they don’t hire them into the company… duh. Oh and Paris Opera just hired their first African descent dancers Awa Joannais… (note that it was under Benjamin Millpied…) And not to mention Asians make up half the world’s population so you would think that there would be more Asian principal dancers… Like ummm hello, did we not watch the Prix de Lausanne… Asians galore.

So, I am not saying give everyone a free ballet education, because that would ruin American dance studios and ballet schools hahaha. But, what I am saying is that studios/ ballet schools should be recruiting ethnic dancers who have the potential to dance: natural turnout, good feet, hypermobility, etc at a young age (age 8-10) and recruit them, and prepare them to push the distance… I would include body weight/ skeletal frame but in America these days there is little difference in the obesity category when it comes to race, and obesity isn’t genetic. Talking mostly about girls… (NYU) http://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/archives/race_class/othergirlsstuff.html
So- by replacing school directors, with new directors and innovative dance teachers, like myself… lol, you have to find dancers with potential and carve them a path into the ballet world… If elite ballet schools only get to pick dancers who are already trained, who are already polished for their SI programs, and scholarship spots etc…. then it isn’t right… Potential and diversity should factor in as well…

Now, as the press covers people have paved their way into the limelight of ballet, I applaud them all as well… But the reality is… it really doesn’t make a difference. I point out that Desmond Richardson became the first African American male dancer in 1997… And it wasn’t till 2015 that another African American reached principal…. The point here isn’t to criticize ABT, but it is to point out the lack of students available to pull from… And it didn’t help that JKO school wasn’t founded till 2004. Hee Seo was the first Korean, and I believe the first Asian Woman as a principal dancer, (I could be wrong about being the first Asian woman as principal but looking back as the rosters… (I am like 80 percent confident in that statement) and last year Stella Abrera being the first Pacific Islander, specifically Filipina to become principal… So since Desmond Richardson, ABT in the past 20 years next season has yet to “ever see a talented potential African American Male Dancer who deserves a principal spot or has the potential to be a principal dancer?”… *side eye*

Another thing people use in the ballet of ballet and ethnicity is the lack of ethnicity in storybook ballets… like where are the black swans, where are the Asian swans, blah blah blah… Honestly, these stories were curated in Europe… and even though Goldilocks has golden hair… and snow white has hair as dark ebony wood… or Cinderella’s skin so fair… I doubt that actually matters to directors… I think they are looking for women who evoke the idea of being a princess, evoke beauty, and evoke the passion that is ballet… But if there aren’t ethnic girls in the corps, in the school, or even given a chance … Well… we won’t be seeing them on stage… I mean hello… if a blonde woman can dance in La Bayadere, Don Q or Corsaire… I am just sayin… I think they are truly looking at who is technically and artistically ready to headline a ballet… You also have to be emotionally stable, and have a level head as you are about to go under an extreme amount of pressure.

A lot of young ethnic dancers have written in and even asked me to doodle them, which I eventually will do for free… but the big issue I see… is the lack of technique and lack of turnout, a lot of them have pretty feet… and most of them are young enough to still change the shape of their legs and feet. The problem? Bad teachers, bad training, or can’t afford elite training… Like dear teachers around the US, it isn’t that hard to give the correction… STRAIGHTEN YOUR KNEES… like dear baby Jesus, sooo many bent knees… >____< If they don’t do it on their own, do it for them… You can’t be “on your box” and have bent knee…. *side eye* what is America teaching *end of side eye*

So, where does this leave us in this ginormous post? That if you want to see a change in the ballet world… You need to support scholarship funds, you need to support company endowments, etc… Don’t just donate money to a ballet company- but you actually have to go in, and talk to someone about programs designed for ethnic dancers… You can’t just donate tons of money to a company… They will spend it how they see fit, and 9 times out of 10 it will be to pay off debt… You have to do a little work.

Now that we have a lot of the crazy out of our systems… Let’s talk…. Besides being angry and sharing inspirational stories on facebook what have you done to change ballet?
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4 thoughts on “Ballet & the Passable White Standard…

  1. Natasha Lay says:

    Ethnicity in ballet is definitely a conversation we need to start having more often – it’s falling far, far behind other art forms, e.g. theatre, and considering how far they still have to go, it’s not a high bar to set. IMO the “visually cohesive” excuse is bullshit – by that logic, it would make more sense to hire performers of colour who all tend to have naturally dark hair than white performers who have larger variation in hair colour. Yes, it needs to start from the bottom, we need to start actively dispelling the myth that ballet is an art form for the elite but that can’t happen if we don’t see more people POC can identify with on stage.

    Like

    • David King says:

      Oh haha, in the US… when it comes to ethnicity the US has two categories: european/spanish decent, european/non spanish– the spanish/latin population is very large, especially in California.

      Like

  2. Shanthini Murthi says:

    I read this article with great interest as I am a mother of a 12 year old who dreams of being a classical ballerina. My daughter is a Malaysian of South Indian descent who is currently studying Advance 1 ballet, tap and modern here in Malaysia having started with her teacher when she was 2.5 years old. Like all parents I do worry and wonder where will her all her hard work and dream take her and not forgetting the glaring fact that her “colour” is nowhere close to “white” or passable as “white”. In my opinion the ballet world is probably one of the last standing bulwark or bastion of the “Caucasian” world! I think changing the colour tone of the pointe shoes in my opinion are “cosmetic” changes. It is a made to make the “non Caucasian world” think that the ballet world is changing but in fact they are trying very hard to resist the change. I think it’s due to fear of the unknown. It will be very interesting to see what the future holds.

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