In ballet classes I took growing up, I'd assume the same place at my suburban dance studio's barre every week. A stock print of young dancers in delicate tutus hung before me, and they looked exactly how you'd imagine a cliché ballerina might: Demure. Submissive. White.
Today, that clichéd image is slowly changing, thanks to the efforts of dancers, companies, and activists working to expand diversity in ballet. Their work couldn't come soon enough, because for too many years, ballet refused to celebrate those who didn't fit within its narrow purview.
"Dancers of color have always danced ballet, but their history is rarely brought to the forefront," says Anjali Austin, a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem and a professor of dance at Florida State University.
She points to examples like Raven Wilkinson, who paved the way as the first African American woman to dance full time with the international company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the mid 1950s. Wilkinson struggled with having to keep a low profile during their tours in the South; that pressure partly impacted her decision to leave the company after six years, cutting her American career short. She spent the remainder of her prime at the Dutch National Ballet in Europe as a soloist. And not only did Debra Austin become the first African American female dancer at New York City Ballet, but in 1982, she became the first black woman to become a principal dancer at a large American company—Pennsylvania Ballet. Yet Austin's accomplishments are often left out of the ballet history narrative.
For a sense of how things are changing, just look to Misty Copeland, who made headlines in 2015 when she became the first female African American principal dancer for American Ballet Theater, one of the most influential classical ballet companies in the country. Copeland was already a bona fide celebrity, having landed the cover of TIME and a contract with Under Armor; her star has only risen since, marking a definite shift in the modern face of ballet. She isn't the only woman of color in a prominent company role: Stella Abrera became American Ballet Theatre's first Filipina leading ballerina in 2016. Sierra Leone–born Michaela DePrince made waves on both sides of the Atlantic while rising through the ranks of Dutch National Ballet. Both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre have introduced diversity initiatives. And this spring, New York City Ballet announced its newly appointed apprentices—five out of eight are people of color.
These individuals and companies have certainly made an impact with dance enthusiasts, but critics and dance experts agree there's still more work to be done.
"It's not about putting brown bodies in space, but about identifying the aspects of ballet that are culturally alienating," says Theresa Ruth Howard, a former dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and founder and curator of the online platform Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet. This includes examining the clothes students are required to wear (this January, Gaynor Minden announced they would become the first major supplier to sell pointe shoes in Cappuccino and Espresso tones), hiring educators of color, and even evaluating building artwork.
Perhaps no troupe embodies the changing spirit of ballet more than Ballez. Led by choreographer and dancer Katy Pyle, the New York company makes a concerted effort to build the lineage of lesbian, queer and transgender people into ballet's larger canon. Since its inception, the company's productions have been presented at New York cultural institutions like La MaMa Theatre and the American Realness Festival, and members have taught Ballez classes at Yale and New York University.
Ballez was born in 2011, after Pyle and friends saw a dance that literally fell flat—the performers were mostly seen listless on the floor, challenging traditional perceptions of what dance can be. It stirred something in the group of friends, who spent years studying ballet but left it for its more inclusive cousin, contemporary dance. Despite not fitting into the classical paradigm, they gradually felt the desire to tap back into the physical challenges and strength that comes from ballet training. "The word Ballez just fell out of my mouth," Pyle says. The pun (a portmanteau of "ballet" and "lez") was inspired by her dance friends who are "queer female-assigned women who had at one point or another identified as lesbians."
The company, now with ten regular dancers, deftly weaves social commentary into inventive retellings of ballet classics like the Firebird, where they explore a magically perverse landscape of polyamorous princes and their magical sorceress. Sleeping Beauty & The Beast, another Ballez production, melds the two fairy tales with 19th-century union organizing and 20th-century AIDS-advocacy storylines. Future endeavors include online instructional videos that would give more people access to queer- and trans-friendly ballet classes.
"Katy has created a space where we really could participate together," says Becca Mui, a Ballez class regular. "At the beginning, we share our names, pronouns, and something about ourselves. There is this sense that you're creating a safe space and community within the length of every class."
Ballez classes employ elements of classical ballet form, with twists on some exercises and traditions intended to focus on emotional development and camaraderie rather than solely on technique. Portable barres are set in a triangle or circle instead of rows or lines, allowing participants to feel more connected to one another. The company don't use ballet mirrors, a tool used in most classically based classes; rather, the dancers mirror one another. In that way, students are "consciously seeing one another as we want to be seen," Pyle noted.
Through her efforts and those of others pushing to make ballet a more inclusive space, that cliché idea of who or what a "ballerina" can be are slowly eroding—and though there's still a long way to go, Pyle remains undeterred. "Rejecting ballet today would be denying a part of myself and ignoring something that is true for me," she said.
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