Misty Copeland didn’t start taking ballet lessons until she was 13 years old, which is considered unheard of in the world of ballet. Although she had a late start, Copeland has taken the Ballet world by storm. Four years after she started training, Copeland was accepted into the prestigious American Ballet Theater (ABT). Although ABT has been around since 1937, Copeland was only the third African-American female soloist to join.
A recent article done by The Guardian, brought to light the lack of “color” there is in ballet. Many of the dancers interviewed for the article cited various instances of discrimination from different ballet companies. Ballerina Aesha Ash blames traditionalism, “I have a strong sense that, behind the scenes, donors are saying that they don’t want to see African-Americans promoted in ballet. They want to see Giselles as pale, they want things to remain how they are – for the ‘pure’ swans to look like the traditional swans they’ve seen their whole lives.”
One dancer noticed the lack of color in ballet, took matters into her own hands. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dance in 2001, Cassa Pancho founded Ballet Black. The goal of Ballet Black is to provide dancers and students of black and Asian descent with inspiring opportunities in classical ballet. Although her dance company has made huge strides, she still notices a disparity, “The number of black dancers is still very low,” she says. “In this country, there are no black British female dancers at the major companies. The Birmingham Royal Ballet has one woman, who is Canadian, via Trinidad.”
Not only are there disparities in dance companies, but there’s also one in companies that specialize in ballet clothing. Many dancers have to paint their own shoes with brown shoe polish to match their skin, because most companies do not make accessories in varying skin tones. “Black dancers look terrible in pink tights, but so many companies try to make all the dancers wear the same tights. In Swan Lake, dancers are supposed to dust themselves with white powder”, noted Pancho.
Maybe one day there will actually be a black swan in a major production of Swan Lake, until then we can only hope that more children have access to this form of dance, in order to assure that there will be plenty of black ballet dancers in years to come.