An Unlikely Ballerina

If you’ve ever seen a ballet before, you can understand why becoming a ballerina is very tough. You might have also noticed the sheer lack of diversity that often accompanies this area of performance arts.

Ballet itself is a very classical and traditional form of dance, one which has generally remained as an attraction for the more refined and older generations. Perhaps this dedication of maintaining the tradition as is, is why it has always been dominated by those with fairer skin.

However over the past few decades there have been more and more dancers of colour breaking into the ballet world, and with more institutions at their disposal to help them in their endeavours. One such establishment is New York City’s Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Despite being shut down in 2004 due to financial troubles, it was brought back to life in 2013 and has seen the pool of talented, diverse dancers increase rapidly. But turning the dreams of these dancers into actual careers takes a lot of hard work and training, perfectly described as the “pipeline zone” by Virginia Johnson, who is one of the founding members and current artistic director of DTH.

Talking in a piece by Mashable, Johnson highlighted the struggles that aspiring ballet dancers of colour face – and having had worked at DTH for 27 years, she definitely seems like a good authority on the matter.

One of the arguments that is often brought up is with the issue of uniformity, which is of significant importance in ballet. Some suggest that the use of coloured dancers upsets this balance. But dancers themselves suggest it should be their technique and grace that ties the performance together, and not their skin tones.

An AOL series on the NYC Ballet also showcased how it took certain dancers of coloured backgrounds longer to reach the coveted rank of Principal, compared to others. However, one also has to take into account the context of it. For example, it is already pretty hard for female coloured dancers to gain respect and be given big roles, but for males it’s even harder due to fewer positions overall and thus having even more competition.

But all is not doom and gloom, the increase in popularity of coloured dancers such as Misty Copeland - and them starring in lead roles, shows that there is now a shift in the attitude towards using more coloured dancers in performances. Virginia Johnson of DTH also believes that “in three to five years no one will be talking about diversity in ballet, because it will have happened”. And that is the important thing here. But let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.