I recently met the mother of a young ballet dancer in a major ballet school who is struggling. She told me near tears how worried she is for her 12-year-old daughter. There were a lot of red flags, her child was showing disinterest in attending performances she would have previously loved to go to, teachers said she seemed “distant” in class, and she was breaking down, daily, about her hair not being just right. “My teacher will say I look sloppy” she would cry to her mother in frustration. And then she shared another fact, that her daughter is biracial.
Like so much of the nonprofit community, dance institutions are on a mission to be more inclusive and diversify their ranks of dancers. This is in part because it is the right thing to do, and because major funders are pushing these arts institutions to do so in order to receive funding. A noble, but perhaps short-sighted pursuit.
It is, of course, important to break down racial barriers in dance. Schools with resources should have outreach and scholarship programs to allow anyone who wants to dance the opportunity to be in the studio. But what happens next? How do we support young artists of color, lured into traditionally white spaces for the sake of diversity, once they get there? What kinds of resources and mentors are available to them for support? How do we prepare teachers who have worked in predominantly white spaces their entire lives to be sensitive to the needs of these young people who are vulnerable to their criticism?
In the case of this young girl, it is likely that the teacher involved didn’t understand how loaded it was for her to criticize the dancer’s hair in front of her (mostly white) classmates. We are living in a time where the state of California recently passed a law preventing employers from discriminating against black employees for their natural hair. We apparently needed a law for that in 2019 - to protect the way that a black human being’s hair comes out of their head naturally.
So when we ask a dancer of color, and particularly a black dancer, to be the first, the only, or one of the few, are we then also honoring them by supporting them once they get there? Are we preparing staff to relate to them and their lived experience? Are we considering the impact of placing them in a room of white bodies while we require that they wear pink tights and shoes? I don’t have hard research on this, but the conversations that I have with dancers of color is a resounding “no” – it is also evident in the struggle to achieve the kind of diversity that the art from wants and needs.
There are a lot of questions in this post, and I don’t have all the answers, but I am committed that Minding the Gap will seek solutions to assist dance institutions and funders to change this. Like so many of the issues surrounding mental health for dancers, we need to be proactive instead of reactive. Instead of chasing eating disorders, we need to address the issues of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem that lead to them before they happen. Instead of doing a head count of non-white dancers in our schools, we need to work to make sure that they really are welcome there. And that when they arrive, we acknowledge how much we are asking of them with the bravery of their presence.