Building Diversity in Ballet: Black Swans Are Still Too Rare


  This summer’s Ballet Across America programming at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., was a chance to enjoy the high standard of dancing currently on view in large and small cities in this country. It was also a reminder that in America, with the exception of a few male dancers, our ballet companies remain unrelievedly white. In reviews, blogs and at the Dance/USA conference that coincided with the June 2010 series, the question again resounded, ”Where are the black swans?”

 Dance critic Gia Kourlas posed the question two years ago in an article of that name in The New York Times. As an African American, finding a place in ballet has been my preoccupation ever since I was eight and The Royal Ballet’s production of Swan Lake stole my heart.

Fifty-odd years later, it stings that the question persists. Clearly the answer is neither simple nor easy to accomplish. Where once the problem may have been at the top — administrators, directors and boards of American companies — in a growing number of companies, that is no longer true. Now that I am artistic director at Dance Theatre of Harlem, I get an increasing number of calls from colleagues in search of dancers of color. They are looking for trained, ready-to-hire individuals and complain to me that in auditions that draw hundreds, they see only a handful of blacks. We reap what has been sewn. 

As a nation, we perpetuate separate white and black cultural identities. There are positive as well as negative aspects to the practice, but drawing that line means that it shouldn’t be surprising that there are few blacks on the ballet stage as there are also few blacks in the audience. We’ll only have more black swans when we — whites and blacks — let go of the notion that in the cultural divide, ballet belongs to one side. 

That sense of territorial trespass leads to a more practical consideration, the fact that the dancer who succeeds in training to the high level of proficiency needed to qualify for a company contract is more like one in a thousand than even one in a hundred. To see the diversity in ballet companies that many now desire, we need to increase the number of African Americans — girls in particular — who study seriously past the age of 12.

Plenty of recognition is given to the long-term dedication that goes into preparing for a professional career, but for parents, too, it is a 10-to-15-year commitment. Along with a belief in the value of exposure to ballet as an art form, tuition costs — not to mention pointe shoes and other supplies — mean that, with few exceptions, the majority of ballet dancers — black and white — come from families that have a margin of disposable income. And while many successful middle- and upper-class African American parents are happy to send their tiny tots off to ballet class to gain focus, poise and self-discipline, more often the ultimate goal is a professional career in law, medicine or finance rather than in ballet. 

The economics of a career in ballet are not going to change, but finding a way to persuade our most likely candidates among the African American community to send their daughters and sons into our world is an opportunity to highlight the value of this art form to American cultural life. To do so, we will need to banish some preconceptions about what ballet is and where it fits in a vital national arts dialogue.

Thanks to forward-thinking programming in some communities across the nation, a dwindling, aging audience base traditionally drawn to ballet as an elite privilege is being revitalized with young sophisticates who relate to the physicality of the art form but who also want to connect to the content. Whether a ballet tells a story or engages with dynamic movement, audiences need a compelling reason to want to plunk down the price of admission. Cultural relevance as well as reflections on contemporary values and experience mixed in with our revered classics have the potential to create meaningful, shared experiences regardless of ethnic background.

The power of ballet as an art form is its requirement for the most exacting excellence, sublime artistry, and the highest level of physical accomplishment. For much of American history, convention held that African Americans were incapable of lofty accomplishments such as these. Marion Anderson, Leontyne Price, and, of course, Arthur Mitchell, who created and sustained the Dance Theatre of Harlem for 40 years, proved convention wrong. Yet the perception persists — mainly because as a nation we have yet to face the reasoning behind the long-held assumption that we as a people don’t have what it takes.

More than 50 years ago George Balanchine redefined an aesthetic for ballet in America that transformed the art form for the 20th century. Interestingly, his vision was for an American company of black and white dancers. Unfortunately, that aspect of his vision was never realized. Instead, we as a field have become obsessed with a single body-type that is presumed to be predicated by race.

Until that notion dies, no progress can be made. Just as all white people don’t have droopy arches, nor do all black people have “the wrong bodies.” Turnout, epaulement and virtuosity operate the same regardless of the color of one’s skin. Talent, opportunity, and training are what enable excellence.

If we are ready to embrace diversity in ballet in this country, we must not only re-examine long-held assumptions, we need to take action. Here are a few suggestions to begin:

Ballet is not for the faint of heart. It is about aiming for and maintaining the highest standards. Excellence is a human capacity unrestricted by ethnicity.

  1. Embrace diversity by creating a welcoming environment for dancers of color — and their parents.
  2. Seek out and nurture talent in and out of the studio over time.
  3. Be proactive in bringing dancers of color into your school environment by reaching out to African American professional and social organizations and encouraging them to send their children to your school.
  4. Utilize the same tactic to diversify your audiences and create educational and social opportunities for intracultural communication.
  5. Old mind-sets die hard. Educate your staff and faculty to build a genuine commitment to diversity. A board member may have access to a cultural diversity officer in his or her corporation to provide guidance.

Ballet is not for the faint of heart. It is about aiming for and maintaining the highest standards. Excellence is a human capacity unrestricted by ethnicity.

Virginia Johnson is Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director, founding member and former principal dancer. During her 28 years as a ballerina with the company, she toured the world performing leading roles in such ballets as Agon, Concerto Barocco, Voluntaries, Creole Giselle, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend, the latter three filmed and broadcast on television (Fall River Legend won a cable ACE award from the Bravo Network). Later choreographic works include ballets created for Goucher College, Dancers Responding to AIDS, the Second Annual Harlem Festival of the Arts, Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center and Marymount Manhattan College, where she was also an adjunct professor. After retiring from performing, she founded Pointe Magazine and was editor-in-chief from 2000-2009. Her honors include a Young Achiever Award from the National Council of Women, the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award, the Washington Performing Arts Society's 2008-2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award. She is a trustee of Dance/USA and serves on the advisory board of Dance/NYC and the artistic advisory board of the New York International Ballet Competition.

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