Ballet is a beautiful dance form that originated during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century. Initially, dancers wore masks and elaborate costumes with ornaments in the courts, which grew to elevated platforms. As ballet grew in popularity, it started to show up in France and Russia as well, with varying stylistic elements. Now, ballet has developed an international presence. In Canada, the National Ballet of Canada puts on hundreds of shows throughout the year. But whenever you think of the ballet, or you attend performances, you cannot help but notice the lack of diversity in the dancers. It is impossible to ignore the lack of people of color represented within ballet, but why does this disparity exist?
An article in the New York Times in July of 2015 stated, “Black Dancers, White Ballets.” This statement perfectly summarizes the issue of lack of diversity within the ballet. Since its conception in the 15th century, it has continued to hold tightly to its elitist Eurocentric form. African-Americans were prevented from pursuing ballet professionally and accessing quality training for much of the 20th century. Outside of the access to training and opportunities, ≈ in the past, the costumes themselves were stunted, with little flexibility for different skin tones.
The pink or beige-colored ballet shoes were the only option for dancers up until a few years ago. The reality is that many of the elements within the costumes for ballet dancers, from the shoes to the tights, are meant to be skin color to improve the “line” required of ballet dancers. The beige or pink are meant to match the skin tone of the dancers. A lack of brown or black color palettes for these elements represents inherent racism in the ballet industry.
Cira Robinson, a ballet dancer with the company Ballet Black, stated in an interview done in 2018, “That, to me, was the first time that I realized that the tights that I was wearing were intended to match my complexion,” she says. “It was the very first realization of the racial aspect of ballet for me.”
Dancers of different colors have been forced to paint or touch up their shoes with makeup, which can often be time-consuming. This also reduces the quality of the costumes since the fixes are only temporary. Not to mention the influence this lack of representation has on the mental health of many POC ballet dancers. So, what is being done to fix this inherent racism in the ballet industry?
Some companies are beginning to introduce other skin tones within their ballet shoes i.e., Freed of London, which is one of the largest suppliers of dance shoes, released “ballet brown” and “ballet bronze.” But these are only the mere initial steps being taken to climb the tall mountain of racism present. The lack of POC ballet dancers stems from a lack of accessibility at a young age.
To excel in ballet, many individuals need to start dancing in their childhood. However, race, social hierarchies, and income tend to influence these opportunities. With a growing diversity in costumes and attire for ballet, academies need to create more accessible options for children aspiring to get involved in dance. Ballet should not be a dance for the elite. It needs to be a dance form accessible to everyone regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
These acts of microaggressions present in our society are a symptom of the systematic racism that has been ingrained over centuries. We need to treat it as such and work at either dismantling it at the root or cutting it off from its branches—either way; we need to take steps forward to increase in lack of diversity within ballet and other industries.