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Is Ballet Racist?

Throughout the years, ballet has evolved—but how much exactly?


MAR 21, 2023 | ISSUE 9

Nicholas Rose by Bastian Bochinski
Illustration by Alicia Jungwirth
Nicholas Rose by Justin Reid.jpg

I wouldn’t go as far as saying that ballet itself is racist: a plie or a tendu doesn’t discriminate against someone for their colour. Nor would I say that only selected individuals can partake in these very easy-to-do steps. I do believe white people, throughout history, have had a huge pull within ballet politics, and most certainly discriminated against the individuals who have wanted to be a part of this very artistic but divided world of ballet, primarily on the basis of aesthetics. This art form was built and continues to thrive off of Eurocentric standards of beauty. These standards include having a tiny waist, a long neck, skinny legs and arms, arched feet, straight hair—and most definitely white skin. Without these attributes, one can only assume that the dancer will not be successful. To be more concerned about how someone looked in a tutu, versus the way the dancer was actually dancing in the tutu, says a lot. Ballet capitalises off of this narrow demographic, and so it’s no secret that these standards and “aesthetic,” direct where the money goes. Not everything is “beautiful at the ballet,” especially for those who don’t meet these Eurocentric aesthetics.

I’ve been living abroad for the past two years, based in Berlin for 15 months. I’ve had much time to reflect on my own past experiences of exclusion, and discrimination, at the National Ballet of Canada. I knew from the beginning that Black performers wouldn’t get anywhere collectively if we only shared trauma and festered in our emotions due to the actions, or inactions, of any company. How do we find solutions to this very dark system that breeds beautiful dancers, yet conditions them into believing in something that should no longer hold up in today’s dance society? I call this “Dismantling the Toxic White Male Gaze in Classical Ballet.” You see, in ballet, everything that we see is mostly seen through the eyes of a white male. And this isn’t just ballet. This is also on our TV, in our history books, in the fashion magazines that we read, and in the movies we watch.

I call it a “gaze” because it’s not necessarily based in reality, but it’s a perception that results from living in a white supremacist delusion that is not only present and in motion, but is actually romanticized in almost all ballet companies worldwide. This perception causes us to glorify the white dancer, and downplay and overlook the incredible efforts of Black dancers. This includes holding Black dancers to an impossible standard that their white counterparts would never be held to. This includes body shaming of the Black body. This gaze is so lethal that it’s not only perpetuated by white men, but also white women, and people of all colours who have been conditioned to believe that this is the only way ballet can be preserved. All this in the name of “tradition.” I think that tradition is nothing more than peer pressure from the dead. You can keep a particular technique alive, but that doesn’t mean the mentality surrounding the technique should stay. It’s gotten to a point where ballet is used as a vehicle to perpetuate this abuse and mistreatment in the performing arts.

How will we get better and move past this? I think that it’s important to begin with acknowledgments. We first need to see what the problem is and accept that we all have certain ways of thinking in the ballet world that makes it too toxic to wholeheartedly enjoy. The next thing is understanding who the leaders are. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, there needs to be a dismantling of the staff in most companies. There’s no other way to put it. There needs to be multi-ethnic staff and mental health specialists that truly understand the reality operating outside of the dance studios, in the real world, for each ballet company. There needs to be more Black people at the front of the room. If there are only white rehearsal directors in every rehearsal, it’ll be challenging for people who don’t reflect what the rehearsal director looks like, dances like, or stands for. If you have more individuals of colour who are hired because of their qualifications, you can have a completely different outcome. There isn’t enough cultural sensitivity given to those who don’t fit that “traditional ballet aesthetic.”

When I was training, I was constantly told I was arching my back, even when I would be tucking my hips under. Turns out that wasn’t the issue. It wasn’t until years later that I realised it was the size of my bum some teachers were concerned with, and not actually my pelvic alignment. Black dance leaders will be able to quickly spot if a dancer — of any colour — is in the back too long, or given less roles or rehearsal time, since they, too, experienced exclusion at some point. Most white people who are making casting decisions don’t even realise they are creating a mostly all-white first cast, a slightly mixed, but still predominantly white second cast; with the third — and least used cast — being dancers of colour. Keep in mind that, depending on how many shows there are and how rehearsal time is used, the third cast barely gets any shows. This is one of the most in-your-face forms of exclusion.

Hiring a director of diversity won’t necessarily fix this huge race issue we have in ballet today. Hiring a singular person who’s not a part of the artistic staff to correct an organisation’s conscious or subconscious prejudices in the dance studio and beyond, won’t create significant changes. This is nothing more than virtue signalling and will only benefit the people perpetuating white supremacy in ballet companies rather than those who are on the receiving end of it. Nicholas Rose is a dancer, choreographer, and ballet dancer based in Germany. Follow him on Instagram: @nickrosechoreo.