By Shaté L. Hayes
25 August 2020
Black squares on your organization’s social media profile. Posting videos and images of the Black dancers within your company or school. Buttoned up, PR-approved statements that fall in line with what everyone else is saying and doing. Many Black dancers have had enough of performative solidarity from ballet organizations, stemming from the uprisings over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others. It feels trendy, and it’s not landing.
“I see some companies grappling with it, and I see others patching things, wordsmithing a statement, or negotiating how much responsibility they want to take,” says Theresa Ruth Howard, founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet who’s also an educator, writer, consultant to The Equity Project and seasoned diversity strategist. “When it’s about checking boxes, it’s clear it’s performative.”
Where some organizations are missing the mark is in the misalignment between what they’re posting outwardly and what their dancers of color are experiencing behind closed doors. When a ballet organization’s culture doesn’t feel “Black- or brown-friendly,” as Howard frames it, then any statement promoting racial justice won’t resonate with those who experience something different day to day.
Black dancers are still experiencing various forms of racism in ballet. Sometimes it’s clear macroaggressions, not unlike voter suppression or redlining, where certain groups are kept from equal opportunities. This was the case with Alexis Carter-Black, who says she was told by an instructor at her daughter Ainsley’s ballet school that they didn’t think students should get private lessons and later witnessed that same instructor giving a private lesson to a white dancer. “It seemed like they’d do anything to keep her from progressing,” says Carter-Black.
Other times racism comes in the form of microaggressions—very subtle discriminatory language or behavior that’s harder to prove but still stings nonetheless. For a Black Brazilian dancer, it’s being asked if you can speak English. For the Black dance mom, it’s being called “aggressive” when you ask an instructor about how she handled a conversation with your daughter about her hair. For choreographer Ja’ Malik, who danced with numerous ballet companies and is director and founder of Ballet Boy Productions, it’s being asked if you have a background in African or hip hop when your materials clearly indicate otherwise.
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