Inside the Dance Diary, Entry #1
From the Editor:
Part of the mission of Black Voices in Dance is to share the narratives of Black dancers from around the world and across dance disciplines. Banding together as a community of voices that faces specific challenges in historically white, racist, and micro-aggressive environments, BVD aims to reach current and emerging professional artists. We stand in solidarity with those fighting for diversity, equity, inclusivity, and cultural sensitivity in their work environments. Our work is so important to ensure the healthy future of BIPOC dancers in the concert dance world and to nurture individuals fighting this good fight with us. In a movement of solidarity, we encourage our Black dance community to write letters to their peers, younger selves, emerging artists, or dance institutions and share them with us! Today, I'm thrilled to introduce Gabrielle Salvatto to the BVD writing team as she shares a letter to herself and others about her dance journey.
Dear Dance Diary, A director of mine said that the beauty and uniqueness of being an artist is that we can live different lives and identities in one day. Ironically at the time all the women in his ballet were playing prostitutes, but he went on to say that we could be celebrated as princesses, swans, and mythical creatures and then go home and enjoy the comfort of being ourselves when the curtain comes down. For many of us this sentiment influences the reason why we become dancers; to become someone else, share different stories and histories, escape the present or exemplify it through movement, and to take the audience with us on our journey. Unfortunately many of today’s choreographers and artistic directors continue to relegate dancers who they see as “other” to play the same problematic, tokenized, hyper-sexualized, exotic, contemporary, athletic, back of the line roles. Narratives representing and celebrating Black, Indigenous, people of color, gender expansive, body diverse, and empowered female artists remain largely untold.
Dancers around the world are growing increasingly vocal about the exclusive and harmful practices that govern their work places. They are quite honestly, sick and tired of giving themselves, in mind, body and spirit, to an art form that does not acknowledge, understand, protect, or celebrate their intersectional identities. But dancers are hardly victims. They are resilient and passionate individuals who have ideas and solutions to bringing dance, particularly ballet, into the 21st century. Re-imagining the idea of who and what a dancer can be is the first step.
Kyle Davis, an incredible artist working in Europe, says “Destroy the stereotype of the preconceived typecasting of the Black body. Audiences and artistic directors would be surprised by what a different body can bring to the table, and simultaneously change their perception of what they think ballet should look like.” Rachael Parini, stunning artist with Ballet Met, agrees that the ballerina body archetype often excludes people of color. “Not only are we not seeing the color of our skin in the archives, we also aren’t seeing our bodies. Athleticism and strong musculature can be demonized, but it’s something that often cannot be changed.” Maybe it’s time to reconsider the white leotards and pink tights uniform (and by maybe I mean today). Educators also need to understand the capabilities and limitations of all body types. Boysie Dikobe of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, has recently undergone bi-lateral hip replacement. “I physically destroyed my body to adhere to the unrealistic standards of executing technique based on a certain anatomy. You can make great dancers without damaging them. The body is just a skeleton to build technique, and should be viewed as equal beyond the color of its skin.” Too often young dancers are forced into unsustainable and dangerous positions to achieve “the perfect line”, but perfect for whom? Alexandra Newkirk, Point Park graduate, YouTube content creator and current freelance artist, has unfortunately noted little to no progress in dismantling the elitist and exclusive structure of company auditions. How can we have a seat at the table if we aren’t even invited inside? Many dancers of color know the unsettling feeling of walking down a hallway and seeing a completely homogeneous company roster all too well. They often end up competing for the “token spot” because as Alexandra says, “They will never be compared to the many white dancers in the room, only to the other dancers of color.” The lack of a truly integrated space continues to perpetuate the dangerous notion of tokenism as the norm. Lawrence Rines of Boston Ballet notes that, “ Having only one or two Black students in a school leaves them feeling unsafe, and it also endorses to their white counterparts, even subconsciously, that THESE people are in OUR space.” Implicit and unconscious bias about race and gender in dance permeate through the walls that are meant to be a safe space for creativity, talent and artistry to flourish…no matter the maker. Taylor Stanley, Principal artist with the New York City Ballet, recalls that as a young student, not only was he the only male, but also one of very few dancers of color. “I felt recognized and celebrated for my talent while my bi-racial identify was being simultaneously suppressed. It is essential that dance institutions honestly and authentically bring dancers of different experiences and identities to the forefront.” Moving forward with humanity, transparency and accountability are the only ways we will progress forward, inside the dance studio and out. Jenelle Figgins, artist, activist and choreographer says, “Ballet is still on reserve for the rich and consequently, predominantly white. But ballet is actually for everyone.” As artists we will continue to TenDU the work to build institutions where all artists feel empowered to be themselves. Only then can we freely become someone else.
This Dance Diary entry focuses on the brave and wise words of Black dancers working in the United States. I felt inspired to expound on the personal and creative insight I gathered from my friends and role models working towards equitable change in the ballet community. “As artists we will continue to TenDU the work to build institutions where all artists feel empowered to be themselves.