By Jenesis Williams | 17 June 2020
I am a public speaking champion. I am the captain of a top-five debate team. I have nine national titles and am ranked fifth in the nation in informative speaking by the National Speech and Debate Association. I wield my voice like a weapon, but the only place I remain silent is the ballet studio.
At my first summer intensive away from home, at age 14, I was injured and unable to participate in class, so our teacher decided to play a “game.” I had to record every combination and correction throughout the class. Easy. Except before the first combination started, my teacher asked me if I knew how to spell the steps I had written down. I nodded, but that wasn’t enough. He looked at me, expectantly. His icy glare effectively communicated that he wanted me to spell the entire combination. So I did. I stood up and repeated the combination back to him, spelling out each step.
By the time I had brushed it off, it was time for the next combination. He looked at me again. I spelled out every step, spelling bee style, taking up valuable class time to prove to him I was smart enough to know the steps I had practiced every day for the past five weeks. It evolved into a cycle: write down the combination, stand up, spell it for him, repeat. His eyes widened as I proved capable of spelling out more complicated steps— I was mortified, but I didn’t falter. When class ended, my friends and I talked about how weird that was. Why me? What was wrong with him? Why did he think I couldn’t do it?
What we didn’t talk about was the fact that I was one of two black girls in the class. I didn’t say that this was just one of the many microaggressions that I had to accept as a Black girl who does ballet. I am one of the best speakers in the country, and when the time came, I said nothing.
The ballet world does not give Black students a safe space to speak, to dance, to simply exist. The decisions of white boards, teachers, directors, and choreographers trickle down into the studio where Black students are ultimately told that ballet was not built for Black bodies. Until I watched Misty Copeland’s documentary, I believed that it was physiologically impossible for a Black ballerina to have nice feet— it was what I had been told. I jammed my metatarsals under the piano in my studio daily, telling myself that maybe five minutes of pain could defy genetics. I know I am not alone.
The goal of the corps de ballet is to move as one, fluid body. Each dancer must be a part of a larger whole, standing out enough as to not be too replaceable while simultaneously fitting in. How am I supposed to fit in when my skin color stands out? Famous Black dancers like Raven Wilkinson were told to paint their bodies white to dance. Some, like Janet Collins, turned company spots down for this very reason. But, sometimes, in the shower when I wash off a long day of class and rehearsal, I think about what it would be like to look in the mirror and see the sameness ballet has taught me to desire. I immediately feel guilty. Then I’m angry. And then I go to sleep, only to put on pinkish-white tights the next day.
In class, we are taught that ballet should be an escape from everything outside of the studio. But you can’t escape Blackness, (especially not when your teachers crack jokes like “mosquito lives matter” when a student swats at fly during tendus) and there is nobody to teach Black students how to channel that into their dancing. It takes an educated, anti-racist teacher to find and share Black narratives in ballet with their students. Good luck finding them.
A former student at my studio reached out to the director recently because, despite taking multiple studio-sponsored trips to NYC, she never heard of Dance Theatre of Harlem until she ended up living right next to the company’s studios. She shared Arthur Mitchell’s Giselle with the director, suggesting a studio showing to promote diversity and awareness. I am still waiting for that showing.
Black ballet students deserve to feel like they belong. So please, support initiatives like ABT’s Project Plié. They grant scholarships to students, teachers, and arts administration interns of color, develop their outreach programs within ballet companies, and work with the Boys & Girls Club of America. Help Brown Girls Do Ballet, a nonprofit whose mentor and volunteer network and other initiatives are building the next BIPOC role models in ballet. Increase their impact via donations, sponsorship, buying merchandise, becoming an ambassador, or letting your dancer friends of color know about mentorship opportunities available.
I’ve been told that ballet is just a conversation between a dancer and the audience. If that’s true, it’s time we give young, Black dancers a voice.
A note from DDP: An earlier version of this OpEd listed Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell as “Arthur Miller.” DDP corrected this error on July 8th and appreciates Dance Theatre of Harlem for notifying us of the inaccuracy. We make every effort to be accurate, and therefore circulated this piece multiple times, both within our team and within our network of journalistic allies, for thoughts and revisions. We apologize for the unintentional misattribution. For more information on Dance Theatre of Harlem, the company’s legendary founder Arthur Mitchell, and its female leadership team (made up of Artistic Director Virginia Johnson and Executive Director Anna Glass), please visit https://dancetheatreofharlem.