Changing Ballet’s Perception Means Embracing Black Bodies

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Misty Copeland.

“Dear Candidate, thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length and bust. You have the wrong body for ballet.”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you heard it in Misty Copeland’s now famous Under Armour commercial. The ad, part of the sportswear company’s “I Will What I Want” campaign, shows Copeland slowly bourreeing in an empty dance studio as Raiya Goodman reads the rejection letter in a voiceover.

Decades before Copeland was shunned for having the wrong body for ballet, another famous Black dancer, Debbie Allen, faced a similar fate. After a seemingly successful audition with the North Carolina School for the Arts, during which she was asked to demonstrate a technique to her fellow dancers, Allen was also rejected from the school for having a body that was unfit for ballet.

Both women made incredible, permanent strides in the world of dance, and are testament to the fact you should never let other’s opinions deter you from pursuing dreams. However, these incidents also shed light on a longstanding tradition in the dance world, one that continues to permeate studios, auditions and minds across the country and world.

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While body typing in dance is about as common as a new pair of shoes at the end of a long season, it seems the coded language denoting certain body types as unfit for dance has been lost on other people, in spite of how it has permeated the dance world for much of the 20th and 21st centuries. Even in complimenting us as Black dancers, the world gives the impression that we aren’t supposed to be here. Articles in The New Yorker and The New York Times describe us as “unlikely” and “prodigies,” language that is ostensibly meant to be uplifting but instead further others Black dancers. Even as recently as late May — if the inflatable ballerina statue by Jeff Koons in front of Rockefeller Center is any indication — the overwhelming image of a true ballerina was reaffirmed as lithe, limber and white.

“Just when it seems like most mainstream outlets are finally catching on to the glorious strength and determination of dancers, it’s frustrating to have an outdated cliché take up residence in one of the most famous corners of the dance capital of the world,” Jennifer Stahl wrote in Dance Magazine.

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Dance should include all shapes and sizes.

The standard body type for ballerinas that is largely followed today began with George Balanchine, whose fair, statuesque dancers with the New York City Ballet graced stages across the globe. Former NYCB dancer and Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell described this ideal in her autobiography as, “Leggy, linear, musical, unsentimental, elegant, and, of course, untouchably beautiful.” This counteracts the narrative so carelessly and frequently thrown at Black dancers, which often includes words like flat-footed, curvy and muscular. Further, Farrell’s choice of the word “unsentimental” to me almost speaks to the familiar trope of the angry Black woman, against the calmness of a lily white physique. The idea of a Black body in ballet is indeed revolutionary, rightly or wrongly, but could it also frighten traditionalists who feel that our curves, our muscles say and feel too much?

Both inside and outside of ballet, Black bodies have been viewed as disruptive. The Radio City Rockettes, who infamously didn’t accept Black women until 1987, justified this decision by saying that Black women would disrupt from the uniform aesthetic the Rockettes were known for. This argument of uniformity in the corps over inclusivity was echoed by many ballet directors including Pearl Lang.

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When I think of uniformity in dance, I think of technique — of turned out legs, shaped feet and graceful arms, clear sounds if you’re tapping and intention of movement. All of which can be achieved whether one is waifish or built, Black or white. This leaves only the troubling reality that when it comes to body typing in dance, a Black dancer’s only defect is, in fact, their Blackness. But if the ballet world wants this artform to be embraced as powerful, an emblem of strength and dignity, it should embrace that in the body types, skin colors and emotive presence of all its dancers. If power is what you want, shouldn’t the sinewy muscles, deeper skin tones and undeniable curves of Black dancers be a welcome change?

In the world today, Black women and men have shown their unmistakeable and unflappable power, in dance and in life. If the powers that be want ballet to be seen for its formidability, they must stop resisting progress, be it intentionally or unintentionally, lest they find themselves on the wrong side of history and a permanent victim of a self-created stereotype.

If the art of dance is truly meant to be expressive of human emotions — an embodiment of universal experiences — it should include all shapes and sizes. As Shane Jewell pointed out here in the CFR last year, Copeland can’t dance every role. Nor should she. While her ascension to the rank of principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater is a step in the right direction, it simply isn’t enough. Somewhere, today, a young Black girl is walking by Koons’ sculpture and hanging her head in discouragement at an image and standard that doesn’t and hasn’t included her. An aspiring Black college student is being told her body is wrong for dance, a Black teenage dancer is being told that her feet are wrong for pointe. For dance to truly be an inclusive art form, all voices must be represented until Black dancers are no longer unlikely, wrong or accepted in spite of something.