Ghost lights and Instagram likes: Balanchine and Black history
It’s said that every theatre is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theatre’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes?
Fourteen-year-old Jalaiah Harmon choreographed the famous “Renegade” dance in September 2019. She posted it on the social video app Funimate and by October the bouncy set of moves had been recreated on TikTok. It was quickly popularized by influencer Charli D’Amelio and by early 2020 the dance had reached unprecedented stardom. The choreography floated into seemingly every corner of the internet and many offline dance parties. But as the trend raked in millions upon millions of followers, Harmon found herself looking on with confusion — she hadn’t been given credit for any of it.
Harmon’s story was eventually well-documented: The New York Times offered a thoughtful deep-dive, and the young dancer landed a performance on “The Ellen Show” as well as at the NBA All-Star game. She eventually met D’Amelio, who seemed enthusiastic to have found the dance’s original owner. But the “Renegade” story is one of many anecdotes often used to describe the unfair realities of what NYT called “The Viral Dance-iarchy.” Odd nomenclature aside, the phenomenon is real — it’s the process by which white mainstream TikTok creators co-opt the work of less well-known Black choreographers on apps like Funimate or Dubsmash.
While important, many writers who aim to bring attention to this issue tell the story from a solely technological angle. TikTok doesn’t include a system for crediting choreographers which, while problematic, does not tell the whole story. Occasionally a more thorough commentary will discuss the “Renegade” issue in the historical context of white people co-opting hip-hop music and dance, but the reality goes deeper than one genre.
At a recent symposium with The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, activist and former ballet dancer Theresa Ruth Howard gave a presentation about Black history in American ballet, telling a story remarkably similar to Harmon’s “Renegade.” Specifically, Howard talked about George Balanchine, who founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and the New York City Ballet in 1948. Backed by the success of these institutions, Balanchine became the most influential dancemaker of the 20th century. He choreographed 465 ballets in his lifetime and with them forged a completely new aesthetic with which America now approaches the art form.
Howard quoted historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild in saying that Balanchine’s technique is marked by “angular arms, turned-in legs, bent knees, pelvic and chest articulation and displacement, leg kicks, heightened speed (and) densely layered phrases.” Today, it’s these characteristics that are revered as genius innovation but, as Gottschild noted, “these same elements are basic syllables of Africanist dance languages.”
Howard’s talk elaborated on this last point: She pointed to the similarities between Balanchine’s emphasis of plié and the bent-knees of jazz and Balanchine’s focus on creating the rhythm of the step before the actual movement, a process similar to tap dancing. Howard also noted Balanchine’s famous intention to create an integrated black-white ballet company as early as the 1940s, but clarified this overly moralistic history with racist quotes that suggest his intentions lay more in wanting to acquire access to Black musicality than actually wanting different skin colors onstage.
The presentation also included several clips of Arthur Mitchell, who became the first Black dancer at NYCB in 1955 and later founded Dance Theatre of Harlem. Howard’s 1997 clip shows Mitchell telling his audience “many people did not realize … (Balanchine) told us ‘if you want beautiful hands go take Spanish dancing,’ he said ‘if you want to use the back take Dunham.’ He always used all the different techniques at that particular time.” In the clip, Mitchell perks up from his seat to demonstrate each of his examples, his eyes brightening at the prospect of such collaboration. He tells his audience about a love of Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, bouncing out of his chair to reenact photos of Balanchine, affectionately nicknamed Mr. B: “You never never see him (just standing), he’s always like this! or that! Utilizing the form of jazz, what we call jazz today.”
Thus, Balanchine’s ballet is a diverse meld of people and places, and according to Mitchell he wanted his dancers to know the source of each. As Howard puts it, it’s the product of “organic cultural intersectionality influence and cross-pollination that is life.” If this is true, why are we not teaching our dance students such history? Why are we not writing it in our programs? Why are we not making sure that every generation after Balanchine also understands where this technique comes from and how to value the communities that supported it?
These questions are part of Howard’s mission — she is the founder of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, an organization dedicated to telling the stories of Black ballet dancers from all eras. Her work highlights an all-too-common truth of dominant groups telling narrow-visioned versions of history, but MoBB aims to change that.
As the country looks inward on an ugly racial history, ballet companies and schools seem stuck — many have made commitments to increase diversity and fight injustice, but coronavirus continues to devastate the performing arts industry. Cancelled rehearsals, closed theatres and furloughed employees make it hard to envision recovery at the same time as change, but why not start with educational programming on history just like this? Well-packaged dissections of ballet’s history — its full intersectional history — could be what the ballet world needs to continue its push for change while remaining online. The Balanchine story is currently a sad parallel with Harmon’s uncredited “Renegade,” but just as we have the power to highlight Harmon, we also have the power to change our perception of the past.
Though the talk occurred a few months ago, Howard’s presentation included a beautifully poignant conclusion: “We can’t integrate our communities if we can’t integrate our history … As we work to change the face of both ballet on and offstage, and in leadership as we work to expand the stories that we’re telling and who gets to tell them, it’s vital that people of color know that they don’t need to be invited in, they’ve already been at the dance. In fact, they helped create it.”