I danced from the age of three until I was 14, so ballet was a pivotal part of my life. Even to this day, the techniques I learned from the thousands of classes bleed into my everyday life, such as posture and discipline. But when I turned 12, I noticed a pattern in who was getting picked for lead roles in our recitals. The biggest show of the season was “The Nutcracker,” and the most coveted role as Clara was one I would continuously audition for. Every Clara casted was white regardless of the talented dancers who auditioned.
I would always feel I never received the opportunity because of the character’s depiction in movies and storybooks. Even other talented minority dancers did not receive the opportunity to portray Clara. Ballet culture often consists of a group of the best dancers in the studio, making it very selective leading into being chosen as a part of the company. At my dance studio, the company contains the top tier dancers who the studio director highlights as their stars. Being chosen as a company dancer is an honor and represents the dancers who are on their way to mastering pointe ballet within a studio. But in company classes, diversity is almost non-existent, as the white students were given more opportunities for bigger roles within shows. As a dancer, if you were not picked to be a company dancer, you understood there were no opportunities for you to be a part of the most technical shows with the best teachers. My friends who looked like me slowly started to leave the program after they were not picked to be a part of the company.
Before I knew it, I was performing my last dance even after being in company, which I believed to be my stepping stone in the dance community. My final time stepping foot on stage in a pointe shoe with my hair in a bun. What I did not know was once I left the world of ballet, I would enter into a world where dance could define me. The world of dance had evolved around me, and I quickly found myself behind the norm. While I was classically trained in ballet and jazz, I had difficulty picking up dancing such as the shoot with finesse; therefore, I was told I couldn’t dance by peers. As I grew up, I realized the dancing world locks each culture into certain artistic boxes.
Dance is an outlet for expression, creativity and emotion, but for the African American community, it’s also a stamp of your “Blackness.” I remember entering middle school and not being as good at mainstream dances as I had focused on the strict structure of ballet for years. Because I did not look as cool as some of my other classmates doing certain dances, I’d often get asked, “How are you Black and can’t dance?” Until that point, I did not equate the ability to dance with the color of my skin or my origin. Dance is an art form, not a qualification or a stereotype that it has become in this day and age. This stereotype stems from segregation, where dancing was the only way for Black Americans to perform in predominantly white establishments. However, this dancing was very fast and high energy since African Americans were not seen as classy or prestigious enough to perform ballets. To this day, young dancers are not taught about African American ballerinas such as Raven Wilkinson and Debra Austin, some of the first Black dancers to become principal dancers at a major American ballet company. Young ballerinas are taught the origins of ballet, which began in Italy along with a few Italian dancers who influenced the art form.
Now, I refuse to dance in front of others in fear of judgment because, under their gaze, I question if my dance is up to the standards of the person who is watching me.
As a Black community, we start to determine Blackness by how much soul and rhythm you have based on what the media and history have taught us those things are. As a people, not being able to perform certain dances should be normalized instead of looking down on someone for not having the same gifts we were told we should have. Rhythm can be taught over time, but the soul can not. The soul is what connects the Black community. It’s our way of understanding each other’s struggles, our passion to break through and our way of bringing meaning to everything we do even if it is different from what the world expects of us. I performed my final dance as a ballerina years ago, but what is seen as “Black” has expanded.
Classical dance in the African American community finally had a spokeswoman and trailblazer when Misty Copeland began to break barriers in dance and redefine what grace and strength can look like. She redefined what it means to be Black and beautiful and continues to show you can be unique and love who you are regardless of how people try to label you. I wish I knew about Misty Copeland before I ended my dance career because of the lack of diverse options within ballet specifically. Because hip hop is the stereotypical realm for African Americans, ballet refused to expand color representation in something as simple as having brown pointe shoes or being more understanding of different hair textures and the challenges that come with thicker, coiled hair. That should not define who you are, your worth, or how comfortable you feel in a community. Dance is an escape from reality and a way for our bodies to express every ache it feels throughout the day; it should continue to be that escape as we appreciate our art. I wish I understood this lesson before I hung up my pointe shoes for the very last time.
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