Updated: Nov 26, 2020
For BIPOC (which stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color) dancers, racially driven interactions are common but may be not direct. Navigating racism in the studio and what we can do if we experience and/or witness it is definitely critical in promoting racial equality- ultimately creating an environment where BIPOC dancers feel safe and inclusive in the studio setting.
As we discussed in our previous two podcasts, ballet has unfair biases when it comes to skin color, body shape, and style. Many BIPOC dancers dream of getting into the same companies as white dancers, but are faced with unfair reality stemming from these inequitable biases. For example, some instructors have expressed a view that some black dancers are inadequate due to their body type. The difficult truth is that the inequality that pervades the professional dance world that affects students and adults alike are still prevalent. The harsh reality of the director’s preferences of wanting the same type of skin color, body type, and style in a classical Swan Lake for instance can be an obstacle for many BIPOC dancers.
Master ballet teacher Preston Miller, known as The Dance Artist Coach, says that he always encourages students to talk with their directors if they feel held back in their growth because of their skin color. He emphasizes that when you feel like you're being overlooked for roles you can execute, talk to your director about it, and if they don't want to talk about how you feel racially disadvantaged, they may not be the teacher for you. He tells them to find a studio or teacher where their voice is valued.
Dress codes can also be a source of restriction for BIPOC dancers, especially black dancers. Most studio’s dress codes involve the strict limitation of wearing pink tights, pink ballet shoes and a leotard in ballet classes. Since these don’t complete the line of the dancers, it can be hard to match their alignments in class by looking at the mirror. Being able to wear tights that match your own skin in class seems to be a necessary factor for many dancers.
As a BIPOC dancer, the best way to deal with racist remarks is to talk to people about it and ask them if they think something said to you was offensive. This applies to dancers not only training in studios but for dancers in companies as well. Hearing opinions of others may help you understand and decide if it is something that needs to be addressed. If you’re in a ballet school, tell your guidance counselor, speak with your parents and the director of the school. Finding allies in the studio space such as a friend group you can rely on can be extremely helpful. Having conversations about race-based issues are not easy, but don’t be afraid to tell people and think you have to go through this alone. It is also important for other students to stand up when race-based issues occur in their studio or anywhere else; this is especially applicable to white dancers. When dancers acknowledge their privilege whether it is their skin color, age, or level and use that to fight racism, that is when we are closer in creating a more inclusive environment.
Even though open conversations like these can be challenging, ballet studios, schools, and companies should talk about the obstacles that race can provide in the ballet world and how to improve that in their community for the first step. Facilitating conversations around race, equity, diversity, and inclusion can be helpful in educating and getting people involved in the hope for eliminating racism.
Racial equity is an ongoing process and conversation. Especially in the arts like ballet, it is indirectly nuanced so that BIPOC dancers are disadvantaged. The best way to change and promote racial equality in your surroundings is to have conversations that advocates for diversity and equality with people around you and use your voice to call attention to these matters. For me, I have heard the “twice as good” phrase countless times and I know that it can be discouraging. Every time I would go to a masterclass or competition, the thought of thinking about being “twice as good” was daunting and tiring. Whenever the results weren’t what I had hoped for, the answer was that I wasn’t “twice as good.” However, I realized that you can use that to remind yourself that rather than interpret that as a moment of defeat, you can use it for a reason to keep pushing forward and remember your value.
Featuring Alonzo Kings LINES Ballet Studio 1 - Studio 4