It's easy during Black History Month to focus on how far the dance world has come in terms of diversity, inclusion, and access--and even easier to simply say two words: Misty Copeland.
Not only has Copeland broken barriers for black dancers; she's helped make classical ballet exciting for audiences in everything from commercials to blockbuster films and major award ceremonies. There's a Misty Copeland Barbie doll (which was not without its controversy), and the children's book Firebird, which provide the sense of representation that children need.
Copeland's celebrity status drove her to dig deeper, to uncover the voices and lives of black dancers who proceeded her, and to contemplate why it's taken so long, a question that dancers are asking in many different ways as we strive to dismantle barriers to participation in classical ballet, some of which need to literally be addressed from the ground up: with dancers' shoes.
The whiteness of ballet isn't just ideological. It is material.
For non-white dancers, pointe shoes and tights exist in stark contrast with the lines of their bodies, which is aesthetically the opposite effect of what they are intended to create by seeming mellifluous, an organic extension of limb and movement. This article in The Guardian explores some of the issues inherent to the mindset of "ballet is meant to be pink," a microaggression that maintains systemic prejudices related to the roles non-white dancers are expected to play onstage and off.
Add to these deeply sedimented aesthetic biases, themselves a tacit microaggression, the cost of pointe shoes and the need for dancers to have the "right" attire, along with the hidden cost of intergenerational knowledge (e.g., for parents who didn't have access to classical ballet, there's a learning curve about what classes to take, what questions to ask, and how to navigate lessons, auditions, physical therapy, and more!)--no wonder many of the children who attended our production of Peter and the Wolf had never seen classical ballet before, more or less thought of themselves as potential dancers.
This brings me back to the power of the spotlight. For those children, seeing dancers from our community perform with grace and power offered a way in.
We need to give people more ways in!
We can and should celebrate dancers like Copeland for transforming how people view ballet, we should also remain cognizant and vigilant of the things that continue to mark (and market) ballet as a discipline of privilege, access, power, and whiteness.
We also need to work within our community to assess, address, and remedy factors that exclude people from the arts. Organizations like MYB need to partner with and learn from organizations like Celebrate Diversity Fox Cities and African Heritage, and we need to bring arts organizations' questions to the table during larger discussions like those happening through the Imagine Fox Cities initiative. Access to the arts plays such a critical role in people's longterm feelings of belonging and their pursuit of success in other areas.
Just having the Misty Copeland Barbie on my desk won't make classical ballet truly inclusive; it might, however, spark a conversation or create a tiny bit of the Firebird's smoldering hopefulness that we can change, little by little, into an arts community that feels a little more open, a little more aware, and therefore a lot more exciting every day.