Diversity in Ballet

Many performing arts lovers shouted “Bravo!,” “Finally!” and “What Took So Long?” when American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland broke the oft-unspoken color barrier in the European-standards of ballet to become an international star. Her recent commercial for Under Armor went viral, forcing people to rethink their notions of ballet dancers as athletes and also as white women in tutus. Fortunately—for ballet and for all the dancers of color who want solo and prima places in ballet companies—Misty Copeland’s rise to public prominence has brought a new respect to the art form and a more public conversation about the experience of black and brown dancers in the world of ballet. Caught in the Act came across this recent article on Mashable to address the history and social challenges of this fact of life in American dance—one that, with our understanding and changing ideas—will hopefully soon turn into history instead of reality.

NEW YORK, New York — In three to five years, no one will be talking about diversity in ballet.

That’s according to Virginia Johnson, a founding member and artistic director of New York City’s famed Dance Theatre of Harlem. In a few years, she thinks it will be a boring topic “because it will have happened,” she says in a light but commanding voice. Soon, she says, the largely white world of ballet will be populated with dancers of color.

Soon — but not today. Not in 2015.

Today, the ballet world still has a race issue. Brown ballerinas are almost invisible, rarely in the spotlight. Pools of talent are left untouched, as major dance companies glide over people of color in favor of white dancers. Dancers of color don’t often get coveted principal or soloist roles, and browsing through the corps de ballet roster of renowned institutions like the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet shows that diverse swans are in short supply.

Johnson rests comfortably in her three- to five-year theory, though. She is in a position to push that change forward. Along with companies like the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem is a well-known entity in the ballet world, founded in 1969 “shortly after the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the site declares. Its mission statement is clear: “To present a ballet company of African-American and other racially diverse artists who perform the most demanding repertory at the highest level of quality.”

“Right from the beginning, this company started making people think different about ballet,” says Johnson.

She remembers her early days at New York University, cramming in church basement ballet classes on the weekend with dancer Arthur Mitchell. Once she found out he was starting his own company, she took a leave of absence from college and joined him at his Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was a bold idea in a tense dance era for people of color.

“People had told us, ‘You can’t do this,'” Johnson recalls. “All of us were in that place as warriors, who were like, ‘Yes we can, just give us a chance.'”

She’s been with the company 27 years now.

For the whole article, read here.