Black dancers encounter obstacles in pursuing classical ballet careers

By Nedra Rhone


In her first season at the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet, dancer Tanya Wideman was assigned a feature role "Suite Saint Saens." The trio of dancers had to wear matching costumes with pink flesh toned tights and pointe shoes. But Wideman wanted to wear brown tights and brown toe shoes. Brown is the color that matches Wideman’s coffee-colored skin.

Gerald Arpino, the company director, allowed her to wear the brown tights and shoes for the trio, but required Wideman to wear pink for all other performances. "I looked ridiculous," Wideman said. "That’s a messed up thing … when a black woman is in a white company."

Tutus, tights and toe shoes in sugary pink or shimmering white are images associated with classical ballet. Traditionally, major classical ballet companies have lacked the color brown, not just in tights and toe shoes, but skin tone as well. Wideman said that before she arrived in 1999, Joffrey had not had a black female dancer in at least10 years.

Debate over the exclusion of African-Americans from classical ballet has simmered for more than 50 years. The reasons for exclusion, expressed by the ballet establishment, have included the need to preserve the uniformity inherent to ballet and the inability of African-Americans to technically grasp the art form.

But lurking beneath the surface is the industry’s adherence to Western ideals of beauty and to restrictive definitions of classical ballet. Insiders say the attitudes of the old guard practitioners and patrons of ballet must change, not only to eliminate racism, but also to allow ballet to continue thriving as an art.

"Ballet is full of very old-fashioned-headed people," said Virginia Johnson, 50, retired founding dancer of Dance Theater of Harlem and editor of Pointe Magazine. Johnson, only two years into retirement, moves fluidly. Her salt-and-pepper hair is pulled back in a low ponytail.

"I wouldn’t have had a career without Dance Theater," she said. As the first classical ballet company to actively recruit people of color, Dance Theater of Harlem was one of the few options for Johnson and her peers.

Many other black dancers went to Europe to dance with classical ballet companies that were more accepting to people of color. Even today, some black dancers join European companies because the opportunity for feature roles, principal positions or simply dancing the classics, is greater.

Since it is generally believed in the industry that classical ballet originated in Europe, some say the historic acceptance of blacks in European ballet companies is evidence that the American imitation of European ballet was superimposed with the racial prejudices of Western society.

Today, in Manhattan’s popular classical ballet scene, the major companies, American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, have 1 percent and 6 percent black dancers respectively, well under the 12 percent of black representation in the national population.

"In ballet, there is a stigma that white is right," said Desmond Richardson, the sole black dancer at ABT. Of the six black dancers in Manhattan’s major companies, only one is female. In each of the two companies, there is one black principal dancer, the highest rank a dancer can achieve. Both are male.

Black ballet dancers were nationally recognized in the 1930s. It was a time when the ballet, previously the domain of Russians, was just being defined as an American art. "Russian ballet was one word," said Tom Schof, spokesman for the School of American Ballet, New York City Ballet’s professional training ground. "They thought it was genetic, that only Russians could dance."

The United States, suffering from an inferiority complex, began to create an American ballet aesthetic largely based on imitation of the European norm, said Alonzo King, artistic director of Lines Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco.

"The term ballet is a misnomer," King said, "What we call ballet is actually Western classical dance." There is some idea in Western society that Europe invented ballet, he said, but the history is from many places other than Europe.

Even though ballet was evolving in America, most black dancers found they had no career options. Instead they joined modern dance companies like Katherine Dunham’s, one the earliest black companies founded by a female, or they joined European companies.

In 1935, Janet Collins became the first black ballerina to perform in the traditionally white Metropolitan Opera Ballet. The same year, Eugene Von Grona tried to create an all-black ballet company.

It was an oft-repeated effort that would not succeed in real measure until the late 1960s when Arthur Mitchell, the first black principal dancer at New York City Ballet, created Dance Theater of Harlem and shattered the notion that blacks were not technically gifted ballet dancers.

Black dancers, male and female, from previous generations had to fight different battles than today’s black dancers. They took classes in secret, were barred from dancing in certain places and sometimes received death threats from unhappy audiences.

Young dancers like Wideman, formerly with Joffrey Ballet, and Andrea Long, formerly of New York City Ballet, deal with racism that is less overt. "They’re very smug," Long said of City Ballet. "They are not going to do it to the point where it is so out in your face."

It is so subtle, that many black dancers are often left wondering if they were even discriminated against. Their self-esteem may plummet as they try to figure out what is going on and if they remain silent, as many do, the problems only persist. Some, like Wideman and Long, leave predominantly white companies to join or return to Dance Theater of Harlem.

Long was accepted to City Ballet as a corps member in 1988 at age 18, but only years later did she realize why. The director of the School of American Ballet had already told her she probably would not get in. Long was devastated but auditioned anyway and was accepted.

That was when she learned that one of the two black women in the company at the time had just quit. She was filling a quota, she said. "If I would have known what I know now, back then, I probably wouldn’t have been there," Long said.

But the young, naïve, Long, who has danced with Dance Theater of Harlem since 1996, spent nine years of her career at City Ballet. In her first season, she was cast in a two-minute solo as a snowflake in the Nutcracker.

Long would strike a pose center stage, and flash a smile, almost as a cue for the other snowflakes to come drifting out onto the stage to join her. "I did that part every time we did the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center," Long said. It is easy to visualize the petite Long, a megawatt smile creasing her heart shaped face, as the first snowflake on stage.

But when NYCB made the film version of the Nutcracker, Long was stripped of her trademark solo act. "Basically I was taken out of the part because I was black," she said, "that is the bottom line."

She said, City Ballet officials told her they did not want it to look like they were making a point with her. "They made an even bigger mistake by not putting me out there," she said. "It was discrimination."

Long did not pursue legal options for fear of damaging her future as a dancer, but said the public learned about the incident when a local journalist pointed out the role switch in a story about the film.

Skin color often appears to be the source of discrimination in ballet; however, some say it is more the fact that dark skin does not conform to the Western standard of beauty. And ballet places great emphasis on physical beauty.

"A lot of dancing is the physicality," said Susan Pilarre, 50, former principal of New York City Ballet and currently a teacher at the school. "Classical ballet is the most difficult, because it’s like being an athlete and a model."

"It’s not just black dancers, it is everyone" said Virginia Johnson, "The definition of beauty in ballet is really kind of tight." But Alonzo King said it is the Western ideal of beauty that is narrow, "When you say I need a beautiful woman for this part, there is a certain image in their heads … a blonde-haired woman, 36-24-36."

"I knew early on that in American Ballet Theater to play the Swan, you had to look a certain way, to be Giselle, you had to look a certain way," said Andrea Long. "I was like, ‘You know, that’s not going to happen.’ even though I was at ABT’s school, I just knew the reality.

"We would go to see the company perform and I never saw any black people up there."

Others in the industry have said the problem is not skin color, rather uniformity.

The objective of the corps de ballet is to be a uniform background to the principal dancers. That presents a unique problem to the director who wants to maintain classic ballet standards and still have a diverse group of dancers. Of course, said Schof, even though the corps is supposed to look the same, "they never do."

Women of various heights, weights and shapes are all corps dancers. "It’s very rare that you’re going to go somewhere and you’re going to see 30 white girls in a row looking the same," said Long, whose small, naturally thin frame meets the strict ballet standards. "To me when they say uniform, that should be in the dancing and not so much the look."

Yet, in ballet, body type can make or break the career of an aspiring ballerina and it usually cannot be determined until after the age of 13, five or more years after girls have been dancing consistently.

"We have a totally different body type than white women, so therefore we are not going to look like them," Tanya Wideman said, smoothing her long black hair. "They are not used to seeing black women. First of all they are not used to seeing our butts and that’s what we have. Most black women are very muscular and that totally goes against what most white dancers are."

Both Joffrey and Dance Theater harped on Wideman’s weight. Currently, at 5 feet 6 1/2 inches and 118 pounds, Wideman has lost 12 pounds since arriving in New York to dance with Dance Theater of Harlem. Her well-defined arms outlined by a fitted gray shirt show the results of her regular workout regimen.

While body-based stereotypes have adversely affected black women who want to be ballet dancers, Tom Schof said it is a general problem of the industry. "It’s not like we get body types by race that are all wrong. We get wrong body types out there!" In general, you want someone who is nicely proportioned and long legged, he said. If it is a matter of losing a few pounds, that is rarely a problem. "It’s a very subjective thing," Schof said. "There is no magic formula."

Traditionally, black men have been more successful than their female counterparts in building careers in classical ballet. First, as partners, men are the frames, not the picture. They are not subjected to physical standards as rigid as those for women.

Second, there is a desperate need for men in classical ballet. "They’re like, ‘Oh, who cares if they’re black, just take them, we need boys,’ " Long said.

She said she believes the white dance world is more willing to accept black men as partners for white female dancers. Because it has been done over and over since the 1950s by dancers like Arthur Mitchell, James Collins and Keith Lee, it has almost become tradition, Long said.

The School of American Ballet even started a special recruitment effort in minority communities to increase the number of male dancers at the school. For the past eight years, the company has advertised in minority newspapers in New York City, for young male dancers.

The number of minority students at the school increased from 12 percent to 16 percent over the past year with most of the increase due to the number of men, said Tom Schof.

Men are also more likely to take on the role of choreographer and establish their own companies. Arthur Mitchell is the only African-American to successfully establish a predominantly black classical ballet company, Dance Theater of Harlem.

In 1969, Mitchell set out to create a classical ballet company that would include those traditionally excluded, a strategy that would simultaneously dispel the notion that blacks cannot dance classical ballet. The cultural climate of the civil rights movement generated many supporters for the company, both black and white.

"He certainly proved that black dancers are classical ballet dancers," said Schof. "I don’t even think that is an argument anymore." Dance Theater provides one of the few opportunities for audiences of color to see black dancers on pointe, that is, wearing blocked slippers which allow female dancers to dance on the tips of their toes and thereby enhance the aesthetic of a long, tapered line of the leg.

Many black dancers have passed through the Dance Theater at the beginning of their careers and some, like Andrea Long, find themselves returning to the company at midcareer to dance with others who look like them. Schools, for better or worse, often try to direct African-American dancers to Dance Theater or to Alvin Ailey, the premier black modern dance company.

Yet for all of its success, Dance Theater of Harlem has never attained the status of its mainstream counterparts. Constant financial difficulties, and what company members and outsiders call a lack of direction, have resulted in employee strikes and resignations in recent years. But, there may be other reasons Dance Theater has received limited acclaim.

"They do not get the respect because they are a black company and they don’t have the same appeal," said Desmond Richardson. In fact, the audience for Dance Theater is predominantly black, said Tom Schof, who said he had not seen a performance in a long time.

"Dance Theater of Harlem has had trouble establishing itself as an institution that will live beyond Arthur," Schof said. It is not as big as the other companies, it does not have the same level of financial backing, and it has never found a home or an audience, said Schof. That, he said, is not because of race.

"What ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem has stood the test of time?" Schof continued. City Ballet lives off of its Balanchine repertory, with dances dating back to the 1930s still in demand today.

But the fact that companies like City Ballet are still relying on ’30s choreography signals that ballet in general is suffering in a wasteland of choreographic creativity. "What we are waiting for is another great choreographer," said Susan Pilarre, a Balanchine protégé.

But African-American dancers and choreographers say that the art requires more than just new choreographers, it needs an entirely fresh approach that goes beyond the typical understanding of the classics and begins to address not just diversity among dancers, but diversity in the definition of ballet. Ballet has to evolve.

"Classicism is misunderstood, it is usually thought of as white," said Alonzo King. People need to talk about the true origins of ballet, which King said is based in folk art.

"Dance is a variation on a theme," said Desmond Richardson, who started a company in 1994 with fellow dancer, Dwight Rhoden. "We borrow from so many different races even in classical ballet, but no one wants to admit it." Richardson and King agreed the origins of ballet movement indicate the influence of eastern civilizations such as Africa.

Nationwide the audience for ballet is shrinking. Most Americans, have probably seen only "The Nutcracker," Schof said. "A lot of the die-hard ballet fans are blue-haired white women that are dying," Andrea Long said. "You need to go after your minorities and they are realizing that."

"I think you have to come to where people are already, using music in our popular culture to interest them," said Sandra Organ, Houston Ballet’s first black female dancer who now has her own contemporary ballet company.

Organ said she thinks part of the solution is educating people and exposing them to the art of ballet in schools, churches and other community institutions. While the classics are great, she said, they should be told in ways that are different and that make a difference to people of all backgrounds.

But most important, Organ said, directors and ballet instructors must learn to nurture the talent of minorities in their schools and in their companies, not just maintain quotas.

Young black dancers and black audiences may find the art more attractive it they see black role models, said Tanya Wideman. "When I was growing up, you didn’t see any black women in a white company," she said. "Now they can see City Ballet and see one black woman in the corps.

"Unfortunately, that is all they will see."