On (a lack of) diversity in the arts

Monday, February 17, 2020 - 6:33pm

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Courtesy of Isabelle Hasslund

It was recital day, and all of my students were lined up backstage; these girls formed a perfectly straight line, no taller than my knee. I had been teaching dance since I was an adolescent so I knew what I was doing. My ballet teacher — whom I so badly wanted to impress, even though no matter how hard I tried, she would never compliment me —  smiled at the sight. She loved lines, especially straight lines. She examined the girls as she approached me, and she invited me to admire how small all the girls were while they adjusted their frilly lavender tutus. She squatted with an exaggerated grunt to pick up one little girl with brown skin, big brown eyes and messy curly hair. 

“This one,” she started, “this one is dense. Small, but dense.” She paused, waiting for me to agree. I watched in disbelief as this child, who looked a lot like me, cocked her head to the side in confusion, her limbs dangling like dead weight. 

I knew what my ballet teacher meant. She picked out the girl with brown skin in a line of white faces, only to lift her up and down and mock her for her weight, and I could tell she had done it many times before with other girls. I wanted to cover the child’s innocent ears — she was four years old and already being subjected to the beauty, race and weight ideals of the dance world. I wanted to look at my teacher straight in the eye and tell her the damage she was causing, but I pretended I had not heard her comment while a hard lump formed in my throat. 

I thought back to when my ballet teacher opened up about her past struggles with anorexia as a young dancer. Thirsty to achieve perfect lines in both her technique and her physique, she spilled every detail to us in between barre exercises about how she would not eat until her stomach growled with pain. When she said this, she looked straight at me. 

There’s an unspoken truth in the performing industry, a long-kept secret that artists and producers discuss behind closed doors: The lack of diversity and visibility in the performance industry from body shape to ethnicity to gender. It’s pointed out by directors on admissions boards at the University and by top casting directors when they are thinking of quick fixes to the diversity problem. However, these problems can only be solved with systemic change and courage. 

As a performer and arts journalist, I become increasingly frustrated every time I enter a rehearsal room or sit in a plush theater seat to watch the same stories being told over and over again — stories of white suburban families, whitewashed stories of cultural happenings. 

I grew up in dance studios where tight leotards clung closely to my newly formed curves, and the surrounding mirrors amplified my image and mocked me for my developing shape. My brown skin and curves stuck out from the pale skin and thin bodies of my peers. Unlike them, I felt like I had no one to look up to in the ballet or modern dance world. No one who looked like me. As my physical body grew, so did my shame for the shape of my new womanly form; my body was a terrain with hills and valleys that no leotard from Capezio’s dancewear store would contain. 

I entertained dreams of becoming a professional dancer — taking masterclasses with the Rockettes and with “Newsies” men — but there was a voice in the back of my head that told me there would be no way that I could make it in that world. It wasn’t made for me. 

The professional performance world is where straight hair transforms effortlessly into a tight, neat bun atop one’s head. It is a place full of people who fit into any leotard they pick off the rack at Capezio. There is no room for girls whose first thought when choosing a leotard is, “My God, I hope this can hold in my boobs.” There was no room for my thick, curly hair that weighed down my messy bun, which gave me headaches and pulled me down during pirouettes. 

I feared a world where I would audition for Joffrey or Martha Graham. I didn’t have the lines they were looking for. The panel would take one look at the fat on my stomach and my breasts, scoff and not even bother to look at me dance. I accepted that as a fact because, as a young artist, everything seems so out of reach — so much bigger than only you. 

I stopped dancing. In my mind, I was making the choice to stop living in a fantasy world where curvy, brown-skinned girls like me could dance in serious ballet or modern dance company stages. I love to dance, but every time I looked at myself in the mirror, it was a reminder of why I could never make it.

***

I was raised on Broadway and books. I grew up getting lost in the magical “Wicked” soundtrack, felt love and heartbreak through the musical journey of “The Last Five Years.” 

The 2008 musical “Next to Normal” educated me about mental health issues and taught me that musicals do not all have to sound like Disney princess movies with light, airy instrumentals and simple melodic motifs sung in a fluttery tone. 

I buried my nose in the “Junie B. Jones” books and turned to the philosophies of Dr. Seuss when I was in crisis. I constantly ransacked Barnes and Noble for the next best book, where I was introduced to “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the Greek classics and random poetry books. Words rang in my mind like musical lyrics. I learned that I hate Hemingway.

Those are the memories I hold closest to my heart: reading a chapter book in my bed all day, unable to put it down, becoming the characters I read about or getting lost in the velvet seats of a Broadway theater, imagining myself on the big stage. Theater was the manifestation of the wonderland that existed in my head. Theater showed me there was a way to make all the stories I read about come to life — from “Alice in Wonderland” to “The Lords of Discipline,” anything could be made for the stage. There were no limitations to live theater; it was like seeing a book being read in front of me. 

My whole life, I watched the experiences of others play out right in front of me; however, it wasn’t until I saw “In the Heights” in middle school that I finally felt heard. Familiar characters who shared my cultural identity took the stage, and the sound of the clave echoed through the Richard Rodgers Theatre. I was ecstatic to see others around me having fun watching a reflection of my life on stage. The characters were finally articulating my own feelings: the experiences of being a Latina in New York City and a proud daughter of immigrants. For the entirety of my childhood, I never considered the possibility my own story was worth sharing on a Broadway stage.

Experiencing “In the Heights” helped me find my voice, literally and figuratively. I thought: I don’t have to be skinny or white to have a nice singing voice, right? Who said I couldn’t audition for Broadway? I auditioned for my dream school, a performing arts high school named Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School located in NYC. When I got accepted into the voice department, I knew it was my turn to tell others my story with my newly-found medium. 

However, somewhere along the way in high school, I lost sight of the story I was supposed to be telling: my story, the one of a short, curvy, Latina who gets cast as a lead in a Broadway show, or the first one of her kind to make it onto the Rockettes. Mine was supposed to be the story of breaking the mold, but as I found myself struggling to find a sense of belonging in a mostly-white school, I no longer felt like I deserved to be heard. It was like being back in dance class again, surrounded by people who look nothing like me, who seem so carefree walking into audition rooms with confidence that you can only get from growing up with money and never being told “no.” 

I felt more well-received when I acted quiet and stupid, when I suffocated my Latin roots around my peers. I immersed myself in white culture to thrive — ditching the world of Juan Luis Guerra for Ariana Grande, staying away from rap or hip-hop music, annunciating my words as much as I could when speaking. I tried to erase parts of me because I was convinced it was what I needed to do to make it big.

Then, in the fall of my senior year at LaGuardia, I got cast as the punchline of a show. When the cast list flashed on my phone, I saw my name next to a character whose purpose was to be the comedic relief of the show — the dumb, brown girl. My heart shattered. I had never experienced such heartbreak.

But such barriers had always existed for me. 

I was taken back to a time when I was in elementary school and I auditioned for the local children’s theater production of “Into the Woods.” I was excited when I got a callback for the role of Cinderella because playing a Disney princess was a dream of mine. I could see my mother was worried, though at the time I couldn’t pinpoint why she would have been nervous for me to go to the callback. After long anticipation, the cast list finally came out, but I didn’t find my name next to Cinderella. Instead, it read, “Gingerbread Woman … Isabelle Hasslund.” 

Finally, I understood why my mother was nervous. I felt tears fill to the brim of my eyelids, but I choked them back and tried to show my mother it didn’t matter, that I was strong enough not to cry over this. Anger welled up inside her, and she called the director in a fury. Her frustration was only amplified when she was told that we should feel lucky. The director reasoned that since they loved me so much at the callback, they had created an entirely new part for me in the musical — a part none of my white peers could’ve played. 

I learned, then, that I would have to fight to be taken seriously for my talents — that I need to persuade people that I can be Cinderella, not just the Gingerbread Woman. 

When I couldn’t convince the teachers at LaGuardia that I could indeed be Cinderella and more, I cried out of self-hatred that I couldn’t fit into the mold that the performing arts industry had laid out for me. I cried until my eyes turned bright red and I couldn’t catch my breath, so that when I woke up the next day my eyes were puffy and my head throbbed. 

At school that next day, my peers looked at me with eyes full of pity — the unspoken crisis of the performing industry manifesting itself in their eyes and in words like, “You deserved better.” It was my senior year of high school, and my dreams had vanished out of sight, out of reach. I felt helpless, and that I had been defeated by something bigger than me, something I could never control. I didn’t even think to apply to music conservatories. I felt that no matter my talent, I would always just be the punchline or the little girl lifted up and down and mocked: the curvy, brown girl. 

***

As an arts journalist for The Daily and as a former cast member of MUSKET’s “In the Heights,” I am lucky to be surrounded by friends and some of the most talented young adults in the performance business. However, I still find that there is a groan of frustration from young, underrepresented artists that is left unheard. I have seen one too many shows at this University and elsewhere where the character played by the minority cast member is the shows comedic relief. Since when did having brown skin or being a woman make someone into a joke on or off the stage? 

Looking at all of the young WOC artists I know — America Ferrera, Rita Moreno and countless more — I wonder how they did it. 

It takes bravery for underrepresented groups to walk into an audition room or an interview and share their talents. We have to do so much more. We have to convince others that we are worth it because for some reason, casting a minority in a traditionally white role is a “risk.” We have to be brave enough to face rejection, sometimes knowing we didn’t get the part because we don’t have the “look” (a nice way of saying you are not white, skinny, etc.). We have to accept that we will not be enough to many of those in power, but remember we have the resilience to prove those people wrong. 

I yearn for the day when the curtain opens and others don’t see me as a curvy Latina, just a girl with talent. I want to be able to walk into a dance studio without needing to hide my curves under baggy t-shirts. I want a world where I’m not stuffed into the “ethnically ambiguous” box. I want to sit at and watch a University show and not see the minority as the punchline. 

Watching Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s halftime show performance at the Superbowl LIV was overwhelming. Other than the incredible feat of being the first Latina co-headliners at the Superbowl and the fact that their music is the soundtrack of my childhood, I never dreamed of the day where two Latinas would be asked to perform at the largest televised American event. It was political, with J-Lo fiercely whipping out a two-sided Puerto Rican and United States flag and having children in “cages” on the stage. 

Their performance was about visibility, making a powerful statement to the music industry and the country as a whole. I was reminded that as a Latina woman in the U.S., I should show off my beautiful culture both on and off stage, be proud of my curves, my brown skin and age-defying genes because being part of the #LatinoGang is something you wear with pride. Most importantly, it was a message to the entire country that Latina women are strong, talented and can give a dynamic and iconic halftime show. 

Our culture is not a weakness — it is our strength. It would be stupid for anyone to ignore us or fit us into a box. I am hopeful that young artists from a diverse range of backgrounds will take power into our own hands and shake up the arts industry, regardless of whether or not it is ready.