“The first time I danced I felt that I had found my voice,” says Misty Copeland in this Payless shoes advertisement. I’ve been reading about Misty Copeland in the pages of Pointe and Dance magazines for years. She is not a little bit unique for being a black ballet dancer in a prominent company, American Ballet Theatre (ABT). As a New York Times article pointed out in 2007, “while other minorities have made inroads in classical ballet, the complicated reality of racial inequality persists, especially for black women.”
Growing up, I only knew three black girls out of a couple of hundred at my ballet studio. (And, as far as I can recall, I only knew one Latino family.) It’s certainly weird that, in the modern era and in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York (ABT’s home), studios aren’t more integrated. Travel nine miles east of my old studio, Westside Academy of Ballet, and you’ll find Lula Washington Dance Theater. There, it’s the opposite of Westside – nearly all black (as well as heavily Latino) rather than all white. Lula Washington includes ballet in the curriculum, but there is also an emphasis on African styles. The only ethnic style I ever encountered at Westside was Hungarian, in my “Character” classes. At the recently-founded Los Angeles Ballet, every single female dancer is white. (One man is black, and a few are Asian.) I’m sure each dancer is accomplished and deserves her spot. It’s just strange when the company aims to represent Los Angeles, particularly in its L.A.-set version of The Nutcracker.
What are the solutions? I’m sure I don’t know. But dancers should be acutely aware that ballet — the art form we love so much — is, for whatever reason, not an equal playing ground for people of all colors and backgrounds.