The story of Giselle, a ballet first performed to rave reviews in 19th century Paris, has a questionable narrative. A few months ago, from my vertigo-inducing balcony seat where I nestled cheek-to-cheek with other thriftier theatre-goers, I observed the following (spoiler alert): in Act 1, man coerces woman into relationship followed by bucolic scenes; then man ditches woman for wealthier woman and 1st woman literally #dies. In Act 2, free of fuckboy, dead woman dances gleefully in afterworld. Not getting hint, fuckboy comes to afterworld, dances a lot and faints a bit.
I’m not well-versed in ballets, but a quick post-show Wikipedia browse filled in the gaps of my understanding. The character of Myrtha, seemingly a queen of the undead, had apparently been dancing fuckboy (Albrecht) to death.
In the production I saw, the role of Myrtha was played by Michaela De Prince, Second Soloist at the Dutch National Ballet. De Prince dances with calm electricity – she soars with effortless dynamism around the stage. De Prince is also from Sierra Leone, and is one of the very few prominent black women ballet dancers in the world.
This is because ballet, as an industry, is snowy white. At the ballet, wealthy white audiences are confronted with an elite cohort of lean white dancers who inhabit narrow conceptions of beauty and desirable body-type.
The very fabric and costume of classical ballet evades the remotest possibility of black dancers. Throughout the sixteen years in which I did ballet, unlike the girls I danced alongside, pale pink ballet tights, shoes, and shoe ribbons failed to approximate the shade of my skin. Ballet tights, mimicking white skin, are intended to transition seamlessly into a pale pink shoe, creating a long elegant ‘line’ when the leg is extended.
In the 2011 documentary First Position, De Prince’s mother is shown merrily dipping ballet shoes and ‘modesty’ panels (the bits of fabric in a tutu which give the impression of bare skin whilst avoiding onstage nipple-slips) into a bowl of dark dye, to bring their hue closer to that of her daughter’s skin. This obligatory workaround, this additional labour, is common to the experience of women of colour striving to get by or blend into a white world – trying to be even half as good with twice as much effort.
When the scenery of ballet is so startlingly white, blackness becomes starkly othered; such a “sharp white background”, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, works to make dancers of colour at best an exception, and at worst a blemish.
Black women’s bodies are not imagined to adhere to the desired ballet dancer physique and technical ability. Many dance teachers will insist that the key foundation of good posture in ballet involves ‘tucking’ the pelvis under, i.e. tilting the base of the pelvis forwards to align the spine, reduce the arch of the lower back, and tuck in the glutes.
This tuck is – by many – deemed necessary to achieve ‘turnout’: the outwards rotation of both legs from the hips, which enables better extension when lifting the leg to the side and the back. This all works a treat if your bum is fairly flat. The reality is that some black dancers end up overcompensating their ‘tuck’, which as one dancer types anxiously in an online forum: “wreaks havoc on my lower back and causes it to pop and crack every now and then”.
Ballerinas are also expected to have super lean, slim physiques. In First Position, De Prince laments that her body and dancing style is often described using coded terms such as ‘raw’ – she feels that some critics decide that her muscular body places her work somehow outside of the boundaries of how classical ballet imagines itself – her dancing becomes something primal or instinctual, rather than elegant, cerebral or technical. The juxtapositioning of these concepts is again a common trope that artists of colour are faced with – our work is ‘traditional’; our skills hard-wired rather than honed. We must ask why De Prince’s work is described as ‘raw’ when she is dancing the exact same steps, learnt in the exact same rehearsals as the other white dancers that populate the stage.
Ballet exists at the sharp nexus of ‘high-brow’ culture (read white, middle-class), and narrow Western-centric body norms. This stands in direct contradiction to my own experience: that ballet is utterly freeing. Ballet encourages you to test yourself to the limits of strength and stamina. It enables dancers to create illusions: the impression of a delicate feather buffeting on a breeze, meanwhile you are hammering your tightly encased toes onto a hard wooden stage. Later, you will wince as you remove your shoes – dried blood caked around your toenails; a newly forming callus rearing its toughened head. This is the dancer’s willful expense: flesh.
Expense, of course, has a lot to do with who can access ballet. Dance lessons are prohibitively costly, as are the various accouterments of shoes and costumes and exam fees that lessons demand. Theatre-goers shell out anything up to one hundred pounds to watch a single show. When you also factor in the pretty much unwritten dress code and overpriced interval snacks, as an outing it becomes simply inaccessible to a huge swathe of people. Whilst I’ve become au fait with rocking up at the theatre in my Dr. Martens and parka, and shrugging off raised eyebrows as I munch leftovers from a Tupperware box before curtain-up, it’s not fair that people who can’t afford to play the part have to run the gauntlet of being appraised by staff and other patrons who emit clear signals that you do not belong there.
With all of this in mind, I continue to feel conflicted about ballet. As a child, dancing was a welcome outlet. It was a place where I could unapologetically take the limelight, without maintaining a façade of modesty or humility. It was a place where I wasn’t required to mute my energy levels, or expected to apologise for my achievements.
School and other public spaces were a stultifying bog of micro-aggressions and racialised sexism, fortified by TV shows and magazines from whose pages I learnt that my hair was too textured (‘frizzy’), and even my light-skinned complexion too dark, my arms too hairy and my thighs too thick. Far from the bra-snapping, ass-groping, thong-yanking, skirt-lifting crowds that I battled at school, ballet permitted me autonomy over my body at a time when I desperately needed it. I couldn’t make boys treat me with respect, but I could practice a pirouette again, and again, until I could spin a full circle on one foot and land it perfectly. This is testament to the nurturing environment my ballet teacher created – unlike at school, we weren’t taught to tear other girls down in order to get ahead. We laughed at our failings, and together celebrated our successes.
I treasured the sisterhood built between a group of girls, coming from different socio-economic backgrounds, with different body types, to do pas-de-chats in a village hall in a backwater town in the West Midlands. Ballet for us was about waddling around in new pointe shoes like a troupe of ducks, collapsing in laughter at a mucked-up jeté, and improvising a teaspoon handle to tuck in stray shoe ribbons. I never considered pursuing ballet as a career – probably for the best as my ability was incredibly average – in part because the ballerinas I saw on posters and dancing principal roles in shows looked nothing like me. I anticipated the work I’d have to put in to become rake thin; butt-less; milky white, and decided to bow out with grace.
These days my interaction with ballet is solely as a consumer. I only go to shows which feature dancers of colour – I vote with my limited money, in the hope that companies and theatre will realise that there is an audience for black ballet.
Whenever I go to the ballet I’m always intensely irritated by the unwritten etiquette of shows – clapping before the curtain goes up; clapping when the principles come on stage, clapping after pas de deux (when two dancers dance together, and then perform short solos) and again at the coda (when the dancers dance together again), and again at the end for the dancers, conductor and orchestra. I can’t eye-roll aggressively enough at the braying sounds of ‘bravo’ and ‘hooooo-ray’ emitted from the mouths of the whitest and wealthiest, in complete paradox to the death stares they shoot at anyone who dares even breathe too loudly during other ‘quiet’ parts of the show. You couldn’t choreograph better the synchronised swivel of five hundred middle-class white heads to stare down someone unwrapping a Werther’s Original during Odette’s death scene in Swan Lake.
The US boasts a much more plentiful history of black ballet – in the ‘50s, schools such as the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater truly set the stage for nurturing and celebrating elite ballet dancers of colour. Misty Copeland became the first black female principal with the American Ballet Theatre in 2015 (the first in its 75-year history), signifying a definite sea change within the industry. This is nonetheless still an industry which, as Copeland describes in her memoir, interprets the presence of black ballet dancers as making ballet “less authentic, less romantic, less true”.
The tide is turning in the UK, but not quick enough, and the top ballet companies in Britain boast incredibly few ballerinas of colour. Dancers such as Céline Gittens at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sarah Kundi and Precious Adams at the English National Ballet (who was advised by her teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet to try bleaching her skin in order to get better roles), and Francesca Hayward at the Royal Ballet, are paving the way for a generation of girls of colour who will have icons that reflect themselves and nurture their aspirations. Royal Academy alumni Cassa Pancho’s company Ballet Black is also forging a new pathway for black ballet dancers. Despite wildly racist early reviews, which described Ballet Black as a ‘heritage troupe’, the company are now based at the Royal Opera House.
Simple meritocracy does not dictate which dancers rise to the top in ballet. It’s also not coincidence that ballet theatres teem with white audiences, and that front of house staff are also overwhelmingly white, despite people of colour being over-represented in this kind of precarious hospitality work.
UK ballet theatres and companies need to divest themselves of their exclusive self-enchantment, and realise that their aging, neigh, dying white audiences are not representative of the broad spectrum of people that ‘the arts’ in the UK must cater to. UK ballet theatres must increasing represent diversity, in order to remain relevant.
They urgently need to comprehend that traditional ‘ballet blanc’, such as Giselle danced in white ‘romantic’ tutus can be performed, with no ill-consequence, by dancers of colour.
They must learn, sooner rather than later, that a black swan doesn’t ruin the tableau.
This article first appeared in the spring ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.