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Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

In the Western world, dance productions and companies lack diversity in both cast and crew — indicating the widespread racism and elitism currently plaguing the dance industry.  In 2018, an overwhelming 73.3% of professional dancers and choreographers in the United States were white, 62% of which were of non-Hispanic origin.  There are many barriers preventing dancers of colour from achieving the same success as their white colleagues due to outdated ideals and customs in the world of dance.  Additionally, the Western world is known for appropriating dance styles from various other cultures without acknowledging their origins and cultural meanings.  To examine the racism that is still highly prominent today in the dance world, it is necessary to begin with the most European, elite style of them all: ballet.

Issues in Ballet

i. Ballet as the ‘Foundation’ of Dance

Originating during the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, ballet is a European dance form.  King Louis XIV of France, a passionate dancer, helped popularize the style across France during the 17th century, leading to the opening of France’s first ballet studio in 1661.  Ballet’s reach extended to Russia in the 19th century, resulting in the making of many well-known ballets such as The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.  This was also the period in which tutus and pointe work became normal in ballet. 

Despite evolving exclusively in Europe, there exists a concept that ballet is the foundation of all dance styles.  Many dance studios including the Royal Dance Conservatory, Dance Pointe Academy and the University of Michigan dance studio, as well as publications such as Dance Informa, describe ballet as the underpinning of all forms of dance, stating that it helps dancers develop awareness of their movements and weight placements as well as gain a sense of grace and precision.  However, this statement ignores the many non-Western dance styles that have evolved around the world without the influence of ballet, such as Afro, hip-hop, Hula and Indigenous styles such as hoop dancing, to name a few.  

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

Ballet technique provides dancers with a sense of grace and discipline.

For example, ballet technique relies on five basic positions of the hands and feet and emphasizes posture and precision, while hip-hop technique includes isolation of specific body parts, popping (quickly contracting body parts to the beat of the music) and improvisation — a stark contrast from the disciplined, exact nature of ballet.  Release technique, a method used in contemporary dance that focuses on free movement and fluidity, also requires dancers to leave behind the strict confines of ballet technique.

The importance of ballet technique cannot be minimized as precision, awareness of the body and gracefulness are undoubtedly crucial in many dance styles.  According to Australian dancer Teagan Lowe, ballet technique is highly useful in styles such as tap, jazz, modern and ballroom, and provides skills such as balance and agility that will always be sought out by choreographers.  But these popular Western dance styles did not necessarily evolve to be performed with ballet technique in mind.  Jazz contains elements of African and Caribbean dance, and has roots in rural slave dances.  Tap dance is an amalgamation of West African religious dances and Irish dance, both of which were brought to America under tragic circumstances: famine in the case of the Irish, and slavery in the case of the Africans.  

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

A monument in Kingston, Ontario commemorating the approximately one thousand Irish labourers who died during the construction of the Rideau Canal. (Image Source: Irish Famine Memorials)

Defining ballet as the foundation of all dance forms is a Eurocentric view that dismisses the many forms of dance that do not rely on ballet technique.  Furthermore, this view causes a Westernization of many dance styles that evolved from a variety of cultures, and dismisses hip-hop as a popular Western dance style.  While ballet undoubtedly provides dancers with priceless skills, thinking of it as the foundation of dance emphasizes European technique as the ideal and brings popular Western dance styles farther from their roots. 

ii. Racist Practices in Ballet

Audiences evaluate the quality of a ballet based on how well it maintains the history and customs of the style, which is why it has diverged very little from the white, wealthy, elitist setting in which it was created.  

Symmetry is of utmost importance in ballet, so it is ideal for all dancers to have the same skin tone, hairstyle and body type, and to be roughly the same height.  This creates a barrier for dancers of colour, particularly those without European features or with darker skin.  African American dancers have been perceived by directors as having unsuitable body features such as flat feet, larger curves, and Afro hair, conveying a message that Black bodies don’t have a place in ballet’s controlled aesthetic.  Some ballet companies even refuse to relinquish the use of blackface and yellowface, which have been used historically to depict people of colour, often accompanied by offensive stereotypes.

Dancer Misty Copeland, who has been a principal ballerina with the American Ballet Theatre since 2015 (the first African American dancer to hold that position in the company’s 75 years) has been instructed to powder her skin lighter for performances.  Her mentor, Raven Wilkinson, was required to do the same when she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s, revealing an unsettling lack of advancement toward accepting dancers of colour in the past 70 years.

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

Ballerina Misty Copeland (right) with her mentor Raven Wilkinson. (Image Source: The New York Times)

Ballet costumes, which are meant to match dancers’ skin tones, historically have only been available in shades of beige or pink that match the skin tones of white dancers.  Ballet dancers of colour have partaken in a practice called “pancaking” — colouring their pointe shoes and leotards with paint, dye, or foundation to match their skin tones.  Dancer Cira Robinson needed five tubes of foundation per week to maintain the colour of her shoes, requiring dancers of colour to spend extra time and money on this practice.  Fortunately, popular pointe company Gaynor Minden released a variety of shades for dancers of colour in 2017, and other companies have since followed suit.

In addition to discrimination based on race and body types, there are financial barriers barring underprivileged populations from the ballet world.  It is estimated that raising a professional ballet dancer — including the cost of lessons, uniforms, summer intensives, and university tuition — is well over $100,000 in the United States.  The American Ballet Theatre is fighting this issue with a new initiative, Project Plié, which will partner the company with community organizations to scout potential dancers of colour.  The program will provide dancers of colour with scholarships as well as internships with ballet companies to help them gain experience on the executive level.

Issues Regarding Cultural Appropriation

Ostracizing and excluding dancers with different racial features is definitely a problem in ballet, but is far from the only racial issue in the world of dance — unfortunately, cultural appropriation has also become a serious problem in this sector.

On the surface it may seem like a good thing — after all, that means that we are appreciating and bringing attention to the dances of other cultures, right? By performing and incorporating aspects of these dances, it seems as if we are moving towards inclusivity and fresh forms of artistry by using ideas from across the world.

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in DanceOn the surface, it seems that we are moving towards a more united world.

However, modern dance tends to strip away the rich history and culture in these forms of dance in favour of promoting an “exotic” and “novel” image, and thus, these styles lose their meaning and importance. Even worse, the profit made from this rarely make it to the hands of those who put in the effort to invent and innovate these styles, with many communities remaining the subject of discrimination and ignorance whilst brands and labels continue to profit off of them.

i. Defining Cultural Appropriation

Nowadays, the term “cultural appropriation” might seem somewhat harsh, perhaps due to an unclear meaning of what it is. It seems so formal and academic, and is sometimes used incorrectly, further contributing to misunderstanding. In particular, it is sometimes assumed to be a problem of oversensitivity, outrage, and “cancel culture”. So to clarify, getting to know and participate in a culture, wanting to bring attention to it by showcasing the culture, or even being inspired by another culture in your own art, does not make for cultural appropriation. In this case, simply performing or bringing influences from another culture’s dance style into your own isn’t cultural appropriation (or at least not the negative kind that is associated with the term). 

Instead, cultural appropriation happens when we don’t acknowledge the culture that created this form of dance. In countries with a large worldwide presence, such as in North America and Europe, it is more important to pay notice to the danger of not giving credit to a dance style’s culture of origin because we are in a position where most of the world knows of us. This makes it much easier to dismiss cultures that do not have such a large presence in mainstream media, such as those of the Black community in the U.S./Canada, Indigenous Americans, as well as cultures in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asian, and the Middle East. What sometimes ends up happening is that agencies or performers borrow aspects of these cultures to seem more “exotic”, “cool”, or to promote “diversity”,  but do so in a manner that dismisses the culture of origin.

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

Dance styles from less dominant cultures run a higher risk of being appropriated in a harmful manner.

In that way, I like to think of it as a kind of “cultural plagiarism” — by not paying respect to the history and culture the style of dance originated from, we are not giving them credit for giving us such an amazing form of artistry, right? It’s even more problematic when most of the time, failing to give credit also means that these cultures, such as the Black community, fail to see the profits of their creation. 

ii. Cultural Appropriation in Practice

One form of cultural appropriation that is gaining more public attention is in the world of African-American culture, specifically with hip-hop. Born in the 1970s from the African-American culture in the Bronx, New York City, hip-hop today has gained a lot of attention worldwide. However, along with its rise in popularity, hip-hop has also gained a reputation for being “cool”, leading others to try to imitate this aspect of hip-hop whilst leaving the less desirable bits forgotten, such as the systematic racism that African Americans face today. For example, in 2016, the average wealth of a black-headed household was nearly 6.5 times less than their white counterparts. Compared to 1962, this wealth gap has barely closed at all.

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

While the style of hip-hop has gained recognition, it has also brought appropriation of African-American culture with it.

This phenomena is of course not exclusive to the style of hip-hop. From residential schools in the 19th and 20th century to the lack of clean drinking water on Indigenous reservations, Canada has had a troublesome history in its lack of respect and recognition towards its Indigenous communities. Thus, it is very important to pay careful attention to respect and honour the Indigenous cultures in dance, something that became apparent in a mild controversy in 2017. 

In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a Ukranian dance ensemble came under fire for including an Indigenous dance, powwow, in their dance routine. Critics noted a lack of Treaty Six or Métis flags in the tapestry, plastic in their outfits, as well as an insufficient amount of consultation with elders and experts, all of which has led to an inaccurate portrayal of Indigenous communities and as such, cultural appropriation. Hopefully, future dancers hoping to represent Canada’s many Indigenous communities will be more careful to pay attention towards these aspects.

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

A group of grass dancers. (Image Source: Cynthia Frankenburg, Smithsonian Institute)

Of course, the list doesn’t end with just Indigenous and Black communities; these are just a few specific examples of how misrepresenting and a failure to respect the culture behind a dance can be damaging. For example, cultural dances from countries in Asia might face problems with being considered “exotic”, also known as an “Asian fetish”.  Additionally, few people consider the Irish influence on tap dance and the mistreatment of Canada’s Irish population in the mid-19th century, when they were forced into roles as cheap labourers for massive construction projects. The hope is however, that being able to understand the issue with cultural appropriation, we can aim to fully honour many more cultures through the form of dance, and move towards creating and showing how many amazing styles of dance there are worldwide.

What now?

It’s unbelievable that even today, decades of European colonialism continues to leave their mark in the world of dance. Racist practices continue to run rampant within the field of ballet by casting offensive stereotypes and excluding racial minorities that do not match up with ballet’s wealthy European background. Conservatories also continue to regard ballet as the foundation for all dance and leave many other styles out of the picture. Or when “alternative” styles do get featured, they are taken without respect towards the original culture, which is offensive and problematic, especially when it is used to feature a certain “look”. The cultures of origin never see the credit of the art they influenced, and will continue to be subject to systematic racism.

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance

Nevertheless, the tide may one day turn. People of colour are finally starting to be featured more regularly in dance, such as with the case of the ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Founded in 1969 with the intention of bringing dancers of all colours together, DTH has toured all over the world. Bringing these issues into full view allows agencies and artists to realize the problems with these practices, and hopefully work to bring all forms and styles of dance together into the spotlight.

Authors

Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance
I'd make a chemistry joke, but all the good ones argon.
Shining the Spotlight on Racism in Dance
Queen's University Life Sci Alum '20. When I'm not writing, I enjoy music, drawing, and checking out old houses.