Why So Few Black Ballerinas?
There was an interesting article in yesterday’s NY Times discussing the absence of Black ballerinas in prominent ballet companies in the U.S. The reasons are many and complex, including economic (ballet is expensive), the pool of qualified dancers is very small, and access to ballet training is quite limited in the U.S. But I was struck by the suggestion that ballet companies are reluctant to hire even exceptionally gifted Black ballerinas because they are afraid to challenge their subscriber base and their expectation of “a ballet company, the way you thought ballet was.” Other Black ballerinas suggested that stereotyping of Black women was a major obstacle to their success because “Black women are perceived as being forceful, which doesn’t square with the ethereal image of a ballerina.”
I must confess that my exposure to ballet is quite limited. Thus, I found it hard to believe that dance companies would pass up the opportunity to recruit talented dancers because they feared their audience reaction. Then I remembered a column which appeared in the NY Times Magazine last December. A reader asked “The Ethicist” columnist whether she was racist because her enjoyment of “The Nutcracker” ballet had been “severely marred by the appearance of a black snowflake and then, even worse, a black Snow King.” According to this anonymous reader, “the aesthetic incongruity was inconceivable. The entire ballet was spoiled.” I am not sure what to make of this reader’s question, but it does suggest that ballet companies’ concerns about their audience’s ability to welcome Black dancers are not completely unfounded. Any thoughts?