The Dark Side of Ballet

by Rosalie Antolini

Class of 2016

Misty Copeland rose to fame by becoming the first African-American ballet dancer for American Ballet Theater. Many young dancers look up to Copeland because she is a role model who fought through the idea that African-Americans cannot be ballet dancers based on body type and skin color.   Although some people think that black dancers choose to stay away from classical ballet, the reality is that racism is prevalent in the world of ballet today and continues to be dominated by white dancers which bars equally talented black dancers from the spotlight.

Some say that racism in ballet does not exist.  They claim that, “the physique and technique have to fit, not the skin tone” (Jennings).  While directors keep body type in mind while auditioning, skin tone plays a large role.  According to studies, “American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, have 1 percent and 6 percent black dancers respectively, well under the 12 percent of black representation in the national population” (Rhone).  Black dancers are not commonly found in professional ballet companies; the directors need the corps to look the same so the principle dancer is not overshadowed.  When auditioning potential dancers, directors will keep this idea of ‘sameness’ in the back of their minds.  Principle dancer, Misty Copeland has achieved much of her success because she is not in the corps at American Ballet Theater, thus channeling the focus to her technique and role, not skin color.

White costumes, white swans, white dancers, pale pink tights, pink satin shoes, the ballet world has always been encompassed by white. Misty Copeland points out, “Ballet has long been the province of the white and wealthy” (14 Oct. 2015). Audiences expect to see white dancers and costumes in part because the classical stories always portray white as good, pure and innocent and black as evil and manipulative.  In Swan Lake, for example, the good swan, Odette, wears a white tutu and the evil swan, Odile, wears a black one.  In this ballet, Odile asks the sorcerer to cast a spell over her which transforms her into Odette and manipulates the prince into falling in love with her instead of the real Odette.  When Odette then dies from heartbreak, the audience is left with a sense of pity for the innocent white swan.     

Being cast in a ballet company only becomes attainable once a dancer has gone through extremely expensive training. Misty Copeland grew up very poor and began taking free ballet classes at a local Boys and Girls Club. To help combat the high price of formal ballet schools, Copeland has began “Project Plié” with American Ballet Theater.  Project Plié “takes a multi-pronged approach to mitigating the diversity problem. It grants merit-based training scholarships to talented children of color” (Carmen). This is an innovative and powerful solution to defraying costs of ballet training in low-income areas.  It exposes young dancers to the wonderful world of ballet and gives them access to some of the best training in the world.

Ballet is a sport in which many black dancers struggle to gain recognition in.  Misty Copeland has begun to break down barriers but there are many more that stand in the dancer’s way.  The ballet world needs to leap over traditional boundaries and turn over a page; one without discrimination.

Rosalie Antolini is a student in Advanced Placement English Language and Composition.