Celebrating Black History Month: Are You Represented - The Ballet Inclusion Issue. An Op-Ed By Florence Raqa.
Bankers go to the ballet: buying seats for corporate hospitality to enjoy stories of swans and beggar maid princesses. Its reputation is elite, expensive and white. Within the two prominent UK ballet companies, BAME ballet dancers are often a rare, but famous name, such as Carlos Acosta, amongst primarily white corps de ballet and principle artist ranks. Cassa Pancho was a student at the Royal Academy of Dance when she wanted to interview black ballerinas as part of her final dissertation. But when she realised that there wasn't a single black ballerina in Britain, she founded Ballet Black after graduating in 2001, as a company for black and Asian dancers. Over a decade later, little has changed. "The number of black dancers is still very low," she says. "In this country, there is currently one black or dual heritage ballet dancer in each of the big 5 ballet companies in the UK.”
Why do we have a white dancer for both Odette and Odile: the famous dual personality white and black swans in Swan Lake? Why can’t a BAME dancer play both if a white dancer can? Does classical ballet have to stay just that, classical (and white)? Do we need our princesses pale and our fairy stories European? Is there a core value system which upholds one archetype as desirable, even down to skin colour, while others are excluded and othered? Are the directors of the UK ballet companies waiting for a new generation of black or mixed-race dancer, regardless of the traditional ballet plots? As if so, what are they doing to make ballet more inclusive and less elitist? What changes are happening at community level? All children are interested in sports and arts given the opportunity via parents, schools and the right funding (which is key). However, very few black dancers enter the ballet studio.
I am a former ballet dancer who is Russian/African mixed heritage. In Russia the class division barriers were broken down by the Communist Revolution to enable open access to the arts, via state funding. This continues with partial state funding in Russia even now, with all social class of Russians open to becoming ballet dancers, so long as you have the talent. In the UK however, training is privately funded meaning the performing arts are a place of privilege: since whose parents can afford the tuition, the tutus and the time dedication? With class and race being inextricably linked in the UK, is this a core issue for BAME access? I think so. What else contributes to the lack of black ballet dancers?
Let’s look at the costumes. The standard uniform for a ballerina is pink tights, pink ballet slippers/pointe shoes (at advanced level), white powdered bodies. True, these were not specifically designed to exclude other ethnicities, but what has happened since the 1900’s is an utter lack of adaptation to the ballet uniform to become more inclusive. The pink pointe shoes and tights denoting white flesh is the de-rigeur uniform. If ballet were to allow for a diversity of identity, it would access a diversity of talent. By changing the uniform this would feed into every ballet school with more talent. If you don’t feel included as the ideal, then why would you pursue a dream? We have all seen Footloose! The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) are the Conde Nast, the Chanel, the top FROW elite of the ballet world. If they adapted their uniform requirement, the rest of the ballet world would follow. Children who dream of becoming dancers nationwide across church halls and after school clubs, dancing with a local teacher, take RAD exams once a year. Their voice has a real impact.
Ballet takes real cash: The Royal Ballet Lower School (White Lodge) is the Eton of the ballet world, with boarding and tuition fees at £33,567 (2018/19) per annum, there are a handful of bursaries, but let’s face it, it’s for the few, not the many.
Back to Cassa from Ballet Black: “we also want to see wider representation of people of colour in other arts jobs, like artistic directors, choreographers, designers, teachers – but these jobs often come after a professional dance career. It’s also about opening ballet up to a wider audience, whether you are aiming to be a professional, you’re an audience member or participating in classes – there are lots of ways to get involved and enjoy ballet.” BAME dancers have had to ‘pancake’ their shoes (painting ballet shoes with makeup so that they match different skin colours). “This is extremely laborious and annoying,’ said Cassa. ‘And can soften pointe shoes meaning that they don’t last as long, and leaves make up stains on the floor.” Which is why her collaboration with ballet shoe maker Freed of London is a breakthrough, creating a collection of “Ballet Brown” and “Ballet Bronze” shoes for dancers with different skin tones. If you see yourself in the outfit it is far easier to follow your dream, especially in such a competitive world as dance.
As Michaela De Prince, soloist for the Dutch National Ballet said: “I hope for the day that I will just be called a ballerina. Not a black ballerina.”