Because of the European origins of classical ballet, and a lack of strong initiatives for change, it seems the answer is “nowhere to be found.”
Most major corporations in the United States have diversity initiatives. Upholding a diverse student body is essential for top tier institutions. The music, television, and film industries have also come under harsh criticism for a lack of diverse representation as well as gender inequality in positions of leadership. However, it seems that the field of dance, especially that of classical ballet, has evaded major criticism for its lack of diversity, despite being a field with potentially the biggest diversity problem.
Ballet has a multifaceted racial diversity problem, stemming all the way back to its European roots. Early origins of ballet date back to large performances funded by aristocrats in Europe. The popularization of classical ballet as we know it arose in the 19th century, through a rise of the romantic ballet movement which told love stories and often portrayed fragile, ethereal women as the character of interest. This time period also saw the rise of ballets blanc, which as the name suggests, depict supernatural characters dressed in all white, and sometimes even having white paint on their skin. One of the most famous examples is Swan Lake.
It does not require deep thought to hypothesize the damaging impact of such a category of dance. The entire art form is built around a lightly colored, pastel aesthetic, complete with pale pink ballet tights and matching satin shoes. It is only recently that this aesthetic has started to be challenged. In a recent post to their instagram, the Nashville Ballet announced their dancers would begin wearing skin toned tights, citing that, “historically, pink tights have been used to mute the muscle definition of a dancer’s leg while making the skin of the dancer appear to be more fair and paler than the dancer’s natural skin tone. This tradition, rooted in European-centric beauty standards, is not reflective of Nashville Ballet’s mission to create an inclusive dance community in which all can engage and thrive.”
However, Nashville Ballet is in the minority of companies. The Eurocentric ideals of ballet are deeply ingrained in the art from. The types of stories portrayed in popular ballets, the lack of diverse role models in top ballet companies, and poor resources for dancers of color, are just a few contributors to a deeply entrenched lack of diversity in classical ballet companies across the United States. Perusing the websites of top ballet companies like The New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet reveal an astonishing lack of color throughout all ranks of the company. While the United States is growing towards a majority minority population, this is far from reflected in the nation’s top dance companies. Part of this problem is that it is easy to attribute this monotony to the fact that the ideal corps de ballet moves and looks like one, promoting a homogeneous look.
The stereotypical image of a “ballet body” has also served as a barrier to diversity in the art form. Neoclassical ballet arose in the United States in the early 20th century, under the direction of George Balanchine, hailed as the father of American Ballet. Balanchine famously canonized the ideal female ballerina- having a short torso with so little fat as to reveal all of the ribs, long lean legs and arms, and ideally a small head. This ideal image is highly problematic because it promotes terrible body image issues and eating disorders, but also because it often uplifts white ballet dancers over hispanic or black dancers that tend to have more muscle and curves.
Compounding this issue, ballet is a highly financially inaccessible pursuit. Lessons are time consuming and expensive, with the best training programs often requiring a long commute, requiring a serious familial commitment to support a young dancer. A pair of pointe shoes usually retails for one hundred dollars, with intense dancers going through multiple pairs a week. After years of expensive training, the most successful dancers often find themselves in unpaid, or lowly paid, apprenticeships, and eventually can be employed in jobs that still make a median salary of only $30,000. This financial hurdle adds to the many barriers to diversity in the art form.
Here, only one aspect of the plethora of problems within the field is tackled. Although stigmatized as a feminine pursuit, leadership roles in the ballet industry are dominated by males. According to the Dance Data Project, amongst the largest 51 ballet companies in the United States, only 15- or 29% – of them have female directors. 70% of the works performed by these companies were choreographed by men. This doesn’t even regard the fact that ballet is entirely exclusive of the gender non-binary, with strict differences in roles, skills, and attire for male and female dancers.
That being said, this blog only scratches of the deeply entrenched diversity issues that plague the ballet world. The question remains, when will ballet companies in the Untied States be forced to catch up with the times and reckon with their extreme lack of diversity?
3 thoughts on “Where are all of the diverse dancers?”
I appreciate you bringing up a pertinent issue, i.e., the lack of racial diversity in the arts. An extreme lack of racial diversity is also apparent in other fields within the performing arts, such as musical theater. In musical theater, there are often only a handful of shows that support a diverse cast (i.e., beyond the token “diverse” ensemble member). Even then, these shows pigeonhole artists into “appropriate” roles that do not provide artists with the chance to develop their craft by having the opportunity to play different kinds of characters, and can sometimes put artists in historically awkward, if not traumatic situations (think about how Asian artists feel having the tragedy “Miss Saigon” be the only show they are consistently cast in).
However, I do think that the ballet world has come under fire for its lack of diversity in the past few years. Misty Copeland became the first African American female principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater in 2015. In addition, although I am not a ballet dancer, I have come across and watched several videos on YouTube describing how dancers of color often have to stain their pink ballet shoes a darker color and struggle to find flattering and/or or appropriately colored tights. Granted, having one prominent Black dancer and some online awareness of diversity issues does not mean the ballet field is diverse by any means. But, I think these two examples do reveal that the greater push towards a more diverse workforce has begun to have an effect in the world of ballet.
I agree with Rachel, to an extent. I do think it may be too broad to say that ballet has the “biggest” diversity problem if we step back and look at the way the system we live in disadvantages a larger majority of racially minoritized groups in many different ways that do not involve the arts. This may simply be semantics, so this is not to invalidate your argument. I definitely agree with you, Jayden, in saying that the dancing (but especially the ballet) world lacks diversity and this largely is based in racism and elitism.
I might briefly speak to the point of the white paint, however, that it may be somewhat of a reach to say that that is particularly problematic when they can claim that they mean to emulate the whiteness of swans. Nonetheless, I would love to see more discourse of how people regard dance in a context of cultural value. Even going beyond what you said about the “ideal ballet body type” and how this severely puts the generally more muscular and curvy Black and Latin/Hispanic dancers at a disadvantage; I think it might be interesting to survey how the people who regard ballet in an elegant, decorous fashion view Latin or hip-hop dances that are historically credited to Latin/Hispanic and Black people, respectfully. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do think that when people go to see a ballet performance, it takes on a similar air of one attending the opera – a formal setting, afforded by the wealthy. However, I have not heard of similarly expensive tickets for hip-hop performances (unless by an outstanding artist/singer/rapper that attributes such dances to their discography.
As much as ballet is undeniably an elegant dance, I think it would do well to incessantly question why even in 2022, there still exists undertones that uplift certain dances based on racism that continues to affect culture.
I really enjoyed reading your post. In addition to the racial issues surrounding ballet, I like how you also mentioned diversity issues that related to body image, gender, and socioeconomic status. I was particularly struck by your point on how body image actually contributes to racial diversity. It seemed pretty obvious to me that the image of the “ideal female ballerina” contributes to body image issues and eating disorders, but I had never thought about how this ideal discriminates against black and/or Hispanic dancers who tend to be more muscular or curvy. I was also really interested in the screenshot from the Nashville Ballet Instagram you included. The post reads: “At its core, dance is a means of expression- a tool to show who we really are”… the forms of discrimination you mentioned in your post really illustrate how the homogeneity of ballet prevents dance from being this means of expression. Do you think that through media and/or policy that dance (ballet) will ever correct these flaws? If so, how?