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My pointe shoes are brown because my skin is brown.
December 3, 2010 10:46 PM   Subscribe

'I couldn't find one black woman working in ballet and that stunned me. I decided to do something about it myself.' What she achieved was ballet company Ballet Black and its associated school.
posted by rodgerd (29 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cira Robinson started "pancaking" her ballet shoes when she was 18: "I use foundation. The colour is Caribbean coffee – it's basic cheap make-up, but it works. Pointe shoes come only in the traditional pink, unless they're red for a show.

Negro, pliés!
posted by pracowity at 4:11 AM on December 4, 2010 [12 favorites]


This is interesting, thanks; I like one of the messages the company embodies: that you don't have to be "stick-thin" to do ballet well. From one of the dancer profiles below the article:

I'd get comments about my hair – I was told to cut it, to thin it, that it wasn't neat enough – or about my bum sticking out. My bum is not going to disappear, no matter what I do. I'm curvy...I tell anyone wanting to get into it that if you want it enough, you can make it happen. Don't be ashamed or afraid to be different. Not all ballet companies are the same, they don't all want the stick-thin look. So see as many as you can and don't let anyone tell you you can't do it.

And the shoes-in-my-skin-tone thing sounds really powerful:

[T]he most fun is teaching the baby ballet class – they're just so cute. And the children get to see Cira. She brings in her brown pointe shoes, so they see shoes in their skin colour, which is a massive thing."

Samuel Chung's bit is funny, too:

I joined Ballet Black in September as an apprentice. I'm the whitest member. We were in Winchester recently. I went on Twitter after the performance and someone tweeted, "Why did they have the token white guy?"
posted by mediareport at 5:01 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This was really interesting -- most of my exposure to ballet comes through ballet movies, rather than actual ballet, and in the movies, they do tend to cast a token black person or two, so I guess I assumed that there were, in fact, black dancers in most companies.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:43 AM on December 4, 2010


I bet they give all the students copies of Cynthia Voigt's Come a Stranger.
posted by orange swan at 7:11 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


At least in the US, most companies I'm familiar with do have a few dancers of color (man, that sounds awkward, but I mean to encompass what the Black Ballet does - a variety of non-white ethnicities), but it does tend to be just a few.

I don't know much about UK companies at all, so I don't know if that's representative of the situation there. But I think the "token" comment by Jacquilynne is right on. The quotes from the dancers themselves talk about isolation more than discrimination and I'd imagine that dancing with an all-minority company would be a very different experience.
posted by clerestory at 7:14 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Argh, and I got the name of the company wrong - Ballet Black. Sigh.
posted by clerestory at 7:14 AM on December 4, 2010


Don't know how in the world you resisted any sort of Black Swan reference...
posted by hermitosis at 7:53 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is awesome. I just donated £20.00 especially because of this: [T]he most fun is teaching the baby ballet class – they're just so cute. And the children get to see Cira. She brings in her brown pointe shoes, so they see shoes in their skin colour, which is a massive thing."
posted by headspace at 8:15 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


'I couldn't find one black woman working in ballet and that stunned me. I decided to do something about it myself.'

Awesome. I can't wait until she starts driving in NASCAR.
posted by flarbuse at 8:19 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This photo, just... this.
posted by dabitch at 9:53 AM on December 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


The equivalent project in the US would probably be Dance Theatre of Harlem, and that's over 40 years old now, so I think the situation could be said to be different here.
posted by mdn at 10:55 AM on December 4, 2010


Yeah, what about Alvin Ailey and Judith Jameson?
posted by Maias at 1:28 PM on December 4, 2010


Dallas Black Dance Theatre will also be celebrating it's 35th anniversary in 2011, with the associated Dallas Black Dance Academy having been founded two years earlier in 1974.
posted by romakimmy at 1:48 PM on December 4, 2010


I keep going back to that photo, it's a great photograph of a fleeting moment, and she's in complete control of every muscle in her body, while making it look so effortless. I want that on my wall.
posted by dabitch at 2:08 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alvin Ailey and the rest are all terrific, but not strictly ballet. I think what makes this group significant is that it's not just a black dance company, it's a black ballet company - still performing something that is identifiably ballet but without some of ballet's notions about acceptable body types and such.

As a side note, I always had a few black students in my ballet classes as a child and teen, but at least that I can remember, no South Asians - something I honestly never noticed until Sarah Kundi pointed it out in this article.
posted by naoko at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't know how in the world you resisted any sort of Black Swan reference...

That's more ironic than you might think. I recall reading that major ballet companies have historically been reluctant to put black dancers in the corps precisely because a black swan or two would supposedly "spoil" a line of uniformly, downy-white swans. Nothing to do with race: it's just aesthetics, you understand..

In response to which, creating a line of entirely black swans seems entirely reasonable, whilst not changing the problem that classical ballet companies have with all types of the cussed variety of the human form - including (but not limited to) skin tone.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 3:24 PM on December 4, 2010


Yeah, what about Alvin Ailey and Judith Jameson?

naoko's right; Jameson and Ailey are choreographers who mix classical ballet with all kinds of other stuff - modern dance, African dance, etc. As my ballet-loving pal would be quick to tell me, a purely classical ballet company is a very different thing (although for the record I prefer companies that mix the genres). The article notes Pancho had to initially recruit dancers "with a more contemporary background" because most black dancers tend to gravitate towards contemporary dance rather than classical ballet. It's probably a chicken and egg kind of thing, which is why Pancho's company is a Good Thing for folks who like the classical stuff.
posted by mediareport at 4:08 PM on December 4, 2010


I always had a few black students in my ballet classes as a child and teen, but at least that I can remember, no South Asians - something I honestly never noticed until Sarah Kundi pointed it out in this article.

Yeah, this bit at the end from Sarah Kundi was interesting:

You don't see many Indian girls doing ballet, maybe because it can be quite revealing – we show our legs and bodies...I'm one of the only British Sikh dancers. I'd like to show young girls you can be Indian and a ballet dancer.
posted by mediareport at 4:10 PM on December 4, 2010


I saw a black snowflake at the Nutcracker last night. I have to admit, the difference in skin tone did jump out at me momentarily rather than being a line of all white on white. It didn't distract me very long though, after all, no two snowflakes are alike. After the initial 'Oh!' she blended back in and I can't really tell you much more about her than that -- she did what everyone else was doing so beautifully, just like you'd expect in the corps & it didn't occur to me to think about it again until just now.

There may have been a fleeting second of 'That's Awesome! Good for her for pursuing this, and good for the artistic director for recognizing talent and placing her accordingly' (but in feeling rather than words, so not nearly that long) shortly following the 'Oh!'
posted by susanbeeswax at 5:43 PM on December 4, 2010


Alvin Ailey and the rest are all terrific, but not strictly ballet.

Alvin Ailey is modern dance, but Dance Theatre of harlem is Neoclassical ballet, and was founded by the first black member of the New York City Ballet, Arthur Mitchell.
posted by mdn at 9:31 PM on December 4, 2010


This is awesome, and the first time I found out pointe shoes are pink to match (white) skin tone, not because pink is considered pretty and cute. Huh.
posted by schroedinger at 11:47 PM on December 4, 2010


Note also that she said she couldn't find one black woman in ballet: the Royal Ballet has a very visible black principal male dancer, Carlos Acosta. That kind of leading role is possibly more accessible or attractive to non-white dancers than the corps, although the fact that he's Cuban means it's no reflection on British ballet.

Race can hardly be hidden or ignored in dance the way it can in some other professions, as brought up in an article by Joan Acocella about a group of child dancers visiting the White House. She notes that "perhaps three-quarters or more were not white, a percentage that does not reflect the demographics in this country’s dance schools."
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:54 AM on December 5, 2010


I have a black American friend whose mother sent her to classical ballet classes for years, but not once did she take her to see a professional ballet performance.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 2:31 AM on December 5, 2010


Corrected link for GeorgeBickham's post.
posted by mediareport at 8:08 AM on December 5, 2010


Ah, thanks mediareport.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 8:23 AM on December 5, 2010


Yeah, schroedinger, my old pink pointe shoes aren't so much pink as some sort of pig-flesh color, which I recall hating when I first got them because it's such an awful awful color. Not cute at all.
posted by dabitch at 8:50 AM on December 5, 2010


I never realized that pink pointe shoes and dance slippers were pink because they were supposed to match the dancer's skin tone (and presumably to visually enlongate the leg.) I knew it was a long-standing tradition. Even in Degas's ballet paintings the ballerinas are all wearing pink pointe shoes. I know this because I have a niece who loves ballet and hates pink and I was trying to find her a pink-free Degas poster for her birthday.
posted by orange swan at 11:57 AM on December 5, 2010


I have a black American friend whose mother sent her to classical ballet classes for years, but not once did she take her to see a professional ballet performance.

Um, and your point, GeorgeBickham?
posted by IAmBroom at 5:53 PM on December 5, 2010


I have a black American friend whose mother sent her to classical ballet classes for years, but not once did she take her to see a professional ballet performance.

Um, and your point, GeorgeBickham?


Sorry, I didn't mean to sound mysterious: it's something that didn't make sense to me until very recently, too. My interpretation is that it would have been unlikely that there would have been many (or even any) black dancers in a classical ballet company. My friend's mother probably wouldn't have wanted her daughter to think that this was something that black people could do, but could not excel at. Or, worse, that this was something that they couldn't be seen to be doing. Kids can be sensitive to that kind of thing.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:32 AM on December 6, 2010


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