CriticalDance Forum

African American Dancers in Ballet
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Author:  Francis Timlin [ Thu Feb 08, 2007 3:04 pm ]
Post subject:  African American Dancers in Ballet

In the Contra Costa Times, Mary Ellen Hunt poses questions about the continuing dearth of African American dancers in ballet:

Contra Costa Times

Author:  crandc [ Mon May 07, 2007 10:17 am ]
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The New York Times also ran a story, on Where Have all the Black Swans gone?

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon May 07, 2007 12:34 pm ]
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An interesting article.

I have heard from so many members of artisitic staffs in various companies that they would love to hire a lovely black bellerina, but they always seem to come up with an excuse not to. Often I hear bad feet used as an excuse. Or body type, but Alicia Graf and Tai Jimenez have brilliant bodies and there really isn't any reason not to hire them.

I wonder if either of them applied to San Francisco Ballet. Graf would have fit in particularly well here I think.

I agree that the deeper problem is a lack of black students in the top academies. I will again chalk that up to feet and body type. I have seen many very talented dancers get eliminated because of those reasons. Or encouraged to try other dance forms. Even the ones who have the "goods" struggle financially and familially. Misty Copeland's struggles to continue ballet training at a high level are well known in the ballet school community. She almost fell through the cracks. How many others are out theere like her that did fall through.

Ash's account of Peter Martins "advice" to her is what REALLY ticks me off. She is a very special dancer and could have risen to any role she was cast in. But narrow-minded Peter Martins only saw her one way and wouldn't expand his vision. Maybe this is one of the reasons I have stopped seeing or even caring about this company. They rarely make any intereting casting choices. It's all more of the same. the tall girl gets that, the thin girl gets this, the one with the pretty feet gets that. Boring.

Author:  ksneds [ Mon May 07, 2007 1:47 pm ]
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I'm no fan of Peter Martins, but his tendency to frequently permanently categorize his dancers is not a racial issue. He's done it to many dancers and it frustrates the heck out of me. I've got a wish list of dream casting which will never come to fruition.

As to Alicia Graf - at least for NYCB, I could understand her height being an issue. A 5 ft 10 in ballerina is more than a handful en pointe - many companys won't consider women over 5ft 6 to 5 ft 7, and NYCB is short on principal men, let alone those over 6ft. And I think taking on a ballerina when it would be difficult to find her a regular partner would probably not be fair to anyone. Kevin McKenzie over at ABT has in the past appeared to be guilty of this kind of poor planning, as he filled up his company with short male dancers when he didn't really have enough short women or roles for the men.

I would definitely agree that it's a body type issue - it's certainly no coincidence that European companies are more diverse both racially and body-type wise.

I'm guessing that the lack of racial diversity in upper level students at places like SAB may be partly financial. By the time the older students are 13 or 14, they've got to either enroll at somewhere like Professional Children's School (or the Public Performing Arts School) or home-school. PCS is very expensive, and it takes time and effort to get into homeschooling, thus it's not an easy option for working parents. Plus, a student that doesn't get a spot in the dorms must either commute or pay for housing in NYC. Again, not cheap.


Author:  angela [ Tue Oct 30, 2007 2:00 pm ]
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I hate to say this, but I do think it's at least partially a race issue. Balanchine might have not been racist per se(spl)(he did admire Judith Jamison and Katherine Dunham), but he was quoted as feeling that his idea of a ballerina was not only tall and thin but also white skinned. I remember reading that in a couple of books. He came to America or more specifically he was influenced by Hollywood, believing in the "American Beauty" myth of the tall, long-limbed, pale beauty.
And it's known that Mr. B. wanted his ballerinas to look uniform on stage-no big contrast among the corps and his leads generally what he visibly prefered. As with fashion designers who wanted thin enough women so people would take notice of the clothes, as if they were coat hangers, Mr. B. wanted thin enough dancers so they could disappear behind the choreography.
Alot of his ex-dancers and followers are directors of the major companies and they seem to follow this idea. Even Authur Mitchell said, to paraphrase, it would look awkward to see a black dancer among white swans. Problaby this is one of the reason why he founded DTH, so Black women could have a chance at ballet.
Alot of devotees of Balanchine agree with this premise. From what I remember there was only one other Black woman, besides Aesha Ashe, that I read about who belonged to the NYCB in the seventies( Debbie???) .While I don't believe Mr. B. was a hardcore racist, it was clear that for the most part, Black women were not ideal to him as ballerinas.

Author:  angela [ Tue Oct 30, 2007 3:26 pm ]
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twoother interesting articles: ... erformance

This whole "body type" thing is ridiculous to me. I can understand why someone in the 1940's would say such a thing. Frankly back then, I think other issues were more of a concern, such as Blacks dancing in close vicinity to White dancers. I have to hand Mr. B. credit for putting Authur Mitchell in his company.
But body type has nothing to do with ability. Its almost like not allowing White dancers to do jazz or tap because as the stereotype goes "they have no rhythm". Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly has proven that wrong, just as Aesha, Lauren Anderson, and a host of Black female ballet dancers have proven dance critics wrong.
It's more honest to say that Mr. B and his devotees have their preferences in terms of what they believe a ballerina should look like. As much as I love Balanchines works, I pray more ballet companies & choreographers emerge that don't follow such a rigid visual criteria.

Author:  KANTER [ Mon Nov 12, 2007 3:54 am ]
Post subject:  Lincoln Kirstein bio, page 205

Page 205, Duberman's biography of Lincoln Kirstein, which, I think it fair to say, has been vetted by an army of lawyers. Indeed, it might be described as an official biography.

Off we go. Seatbelts fastened?

"Now, as they passed through Harlem, Balanchine asked him (Kirstein), if he'd "ever s........d a "N........s". (family Website) .... 'Alors, Balanchine responded, "we will go together'".

Martin Duberman, "The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein", Knopf Publishers, page 205.

Author:  luvschicago [ Mon Nov 12, 2007 12:44 pm ]
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Whoa! I think a gonna check out this book! Thanks for the info Kanter.

Author:  ksneds [ Fri Nov 23, 2007 7:08 pm ]
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Balanchine wasn't a saint, but remember that he was a product of a different generation (and, for that matter, a different country). The vast majority of today's artistic directors grew up in the 70s or later.

Non-caucasian dancers are not the exception anymore, though it seems to be that there are more male non-caucasian dancers than female. But if you see my post in the other thread, I think the issue lies not at the hiring level, but at the school level. Only a few African American dancers are hired because there are only a few left in schools like SAB by the time they are 15-16-17.

And I think the answer lies in making ballet financially possible and not an 'white and elite' art form. Perhaps we should look the Cubans...they produced one of the most successful dancers for African/Carribean heritage in Carlos Acosta, and the colour of his skin didn't seem to be an issue at all.


Author:  luvschicago [ Mon Nov 26, 2007 12:21 pm ]
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From the stories I've read and been told personally, Black females are still discouraged from going further in classical ballet, esp. Balanchine geared companies. Of course if you're discouraged you most likely won't have the energy or enthusiam to go further in a desired career. Black males have always had an easier time in ballet becuase schools and companies generally need more males and the traditional Balanchine ballerina is prefered to be very fair skinned and very thin and straight. What the man looked like was not an issue with Mr. B. because according to him "Ballet is woman".
Ben Stevenson has said he almost didn't admit Lauren Anderson into the Houston Ballet because of her built. Thank goodness for Lauren's determination and Ben's open mindedness. She turned out tho be the most memorable of his dancers to date(she's now retired).
The funny thing is even though Lauren Anderson lost alot of weight, she still isn't a 'Balanchine' ballerina. She still had curves were most Balanchine dancers don't or rather are not supposed to have.
Thank goodness for ABT for making Misty Copland a soloist-but than again from the types of female dancers they hire, they don't appear to be a 'Balanchine' type company.

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon Nov 26, 2007 5:35 pm ]
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Misty Copeland has those beautiful feet working in her favor though. Of the African-American dancers I've worked with, it was their foot structure more than their body structure that held them back. There is no way around a bad arch in ballet if you are a woman. There is more leeway for bad feet among the men.

Author:  luvschicago [ Mon Nov 26, 2007 6:20 pm ]
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You mean "bad feet" as in low arches LMTech? I read other female ballet dancers having that same issue, even well known dancers. It seems you may not be able to develop a super high arch if you're naturally 'flat footed', but you can make your arch more supple and bendable to work for you.
I guess that thing that bothers me about the whole concept about "perfect body" is the false idea of there being one standard to follow. I'd rather hear an A.D. say or admit that they has a preference toward a type rather than use terms like "perfect body". A great book by Cynthia Gregory "Ballet Is The Best Exercise" said anyone can do ballet and each body type have advantages when it comes to certain moves (such as a dancer with shorter legs making cleaner jumps than one with longer legs). She said that this whole body type issue came about with Mr. B. and what he preferred his dancers to look like.

When ABT decided to allow Misty to join the company, she was described as Don Perrione. They talked about how beautiful her overall form was and how beathtakingly beautiful her dancing was.
Leslie Browne described her as hot. Another critic said how sensuous she was in performance. It's said to think of how many other black females with the same or even better ability and artistry have and are being passed over because their physical selves are being measured by only a Caucasian yardstick rather than their own unique individual selves.

Author:  LMCtech [ Mon Nov 26, 2007 6:44 pm ]
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I agree with you that "the Perfect Body" should be re-termed the "Perfect Body according to that Artistic Director".

It always comes down to does the school or company director like that dancer or not. If they do, they will be accepted regardless of body shape or skin color.

I'm not sure many non-white dancers have the courage to audition for all the major ballet companies. I didn't. And I wasn't encouraged to by my teachers either. I might have been more courageous with more pushing from my teachers.

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