Sharing the struggles and celebrating the triumphs of being African American in the ballet world and beyond.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Do discussions about race serve to perpetuate racial attitudes and hamper progress?

"Shut up and dance!" A stark and brutal statement indeed, but it's what my colleagues and I would say to each other for excessive whining. Though said half jokingly, this response caused me to think that either my complaints were petty, or were they simply falling on deaf ears. It also reminds me of how as dancers we are expected to endure great pain, work arduously and keep our suffering to ourselves. Actually, those who endured the most and complained the least seemed to be very well respected and admired.

Recently a friend, who is not African-American, shared a discussion she had over a dinner with a group of women. The topic of the discussion was what the group perceived to be incessant griping by people of color about" their plight." One of these ladies seemed to think that such complaining only made things more difficult for the complainers. After my friend had given a full account of this conversation, I posed several questions to myself. For instance, were individuals in the dance world also fed up with constant reminders of diversity problems? Do discussions about race serve to perpetuate racial attitudes and hamper progress? Does the failure to address significant racial disparities in society make issues of race and inequality go away?

I never wanted to spotlight my race throughout my career, but the topic always seemed to arise. If it wasn't the random interviewers that seemed to surface every Black History Month, it was the inquisitive onlooker who wondered why there were so few women of color in ballet. I imagine this question would not have ran through their minds had they not seen at least a minority presence. Regardless of this focus on my color, I didn't want to spotlight my race. I knew who I was and where I came from. However, as an artist, I wanted to perfect my craft to such an extent that others would be forced to see beyond the color of my skin. Although, this was my approach, I believe that everyone has a right to overcome obstacles in the way that suits their individual circumstance. No matter what our approach, the end result is to be appreciated and acknowledged for our art.

This blog is not an effort to stir up yet another tired conversation about race. I simply want to provoke thought and hopefully create solutions for a more inclusive experience in the genre I love so much. It is my sincere hope that honest dialogue, sincere fellowship and real change will result in a world where such conversations are relics from a day long gone.


Photo taken from The New York Times

I couldn't let this week's posting go by without taking a moment to acknowledge those who have lost lives and those continuing to suffer in Japan. I have worked in Japan quite a bit and have met some great people, on and off the stage. My thoughts and prayers are with all of you and especially for those that I have not been able to contact. I pray you are all safe!

If you are able to give, if only a little, then take a moment and please donate here or  here.


  1. Glad you're blogging Aesha. Living on the West Coast, where African Americans are not as large a population and in the East on the South, I am struck by how few African Americans are in ballet. At the same time, when I present my own work at the Black Choreographers Festival, I see African American dancers, who obviously have ballet training, who I never see at my home studio or in most of the more well-known studios. I always wondered where they were taking class and why, when I post for dancers, I never hear from them.

    A soft form of racism exists in the ballet world that seems to alienate these dancers and keep them in a closed group within a closed group. I don't know the answer and I am not sure I am asking the right questions. I do know that I wish I saw more Black ballet dancers in the mix.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your observations and sentiments. This is my wish as well, and I neither have the best answers nor have the certainty the I am posing the right questions. I just continue throwing out there what issues have crossed my path and those that continue to sprout today.

    I have discovered that when engaging in this discussion, whether past or present, it seems I never walk away with anymore clarity. To me it's an obvious indication that we are all uncertain.

    I have read an re-read your comments over and over again, and each time I find myself wanting to respond differently. Sadly, I don't have the answer but my hope is that through our dialogue we will begin to uncover many of the answers we have been longing for.

  3. I've been thinking about this for a whole week now. I started to write a comment, but realized that, actually, it should be its own post. Thanks for getting in there and raising the issue.

    Here's the link


  4. Talk, talk, talking about the lack of a significant black female presence in ballet depresses me. It makes the problem seem like something people will constantly pay lip service to, but don't know how to remedy.

    In my own very, small, way, I hope to expose the little girls at my church to classical dance and show them that dancing like Beyonce in her Single Ladies video, isn't the alpha and omega of dance.

  5. @WCD- Thank you for sharing this wonderful post. I hope others will take the time to view it as well.

    I have never had the privilege of working with a disabled dancer, but a good friend of mine has and says that it was simply an amazing experience.

    @Sonya- I applaud your efforts in exposing these young girls to ballet. I think lack of exposure is one of many problems, so your contribution- no matter how small you feel it is, may plant a seed in one young mind which may lead to another and another. Brava!

  6. Hi Aesha. I am glad that you are here and are writing about this topic. You have a gentle and civil way of bringing race relations into the public eye. I think that this world is lacking gentleness and civility and we need more of it.

    I love your photo in this post. Like most ballet fans and amateur adult ballet students, I became aware of you from the NYCB Workout and also Center Stage and your photos in ballet calendars and magazines.

    Being a white male, I think that it must be the toughest thing in the world to be a black person in a white society as I think that a black person would be reminded of it constantly. The reminders are either coming from white people or people from you own color. White people just don't experience this kind of reminder of their skin color. It must be maddening at times.

    I remember my first interview for a computer programming job out of college. It was with a well respected military contractor. I walked into a room awaiting my interviewer. In walked a male black engineer, and internally, my first thought was, "OMG. He is black." I did not think this in a negative way. I was actually pleasantly surprised and happy that there were black engineers.

    At the same time, it made me uncomfortable because ... I knew that he knew that I knew ... that he was black. Somehow we got through the interview and I was offered the job. I did not take it because I was offered something much closer to home that was a dream job.

    Before that, I worked in a massive home remodeling store (Hechingers) where a lot of people were black and there was no discomfort at all. I think the difference between the comfortable retail job and the initial discomfort that I felt in the engineering interview came down to the fact that a black person was in a place where I didn't expect him to be.

    By now, in my field, I am used to working with people from many other cultures. This initial knee jerk reaction occurred with them as well. However ... that reaction was much less with them than with black people because black / white relations in America became much more polarized.

    This same knee jerk reaction happened when I started taking adult beginner ballet classes and there would be that one or two black women or men in class. That, "I know that you know that I know" that you are black reaction.

    Yes, this is a messed up reaction. Fortunately, they were so busy being beautiful dancers that they won me over without a word.

    By now I am over the knee jerk reaction. And I am tired of the whole, "I know that you know that I know" thing.

    However, yes. Words do need to be spoken about this. Right now, white Americans are having to get used to all types of integration. A report just came out about how latino americans are now 1/6th of the population. And there is no getting away from the Middle East and the anger between the two cultures for America. And I just saw an article about how black people are being priced out of Washington D.C. This is a big scary world of US vs. THEM.

    The only way to get around it is to spend MORE time together rather than LESS.

    By the way, I saw this IMAX movie that featured the universal language of dance from all around the world. It is called "Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey." It was a lot of fun. Have you seen it?

    Keep on writing.

  7. Hello Balletomane3!

    Thank you for your encouragement, and I will continue writing for as long as I am inspired to and my life allots me time for it.
    What has struck a cord for me was your comment on "I know that you know that I know." Until reading this I had not even thought about this internal dialogue that takes place whenever I encounter situations where I am clearly the only minority in the room. There is definitely an awareness that is felt between both parties, and seeing it in this way makes me wonder if my presence then creates a sense of uneasiness. This then creates an even more distrubing dialogue of," I know that you know that I know, and now I am even more uncomfortable." Ahhh...what a tangle web we weave! The only answer would be to create more opportunities for diversity. It's like the situation where a reviewer commented on my presence in a particular ballet disrupted its clean lines. I guess if the corps de ballet was more diverse, maybe this would have never been a thought and I would not have been such a punch in the eye to this particular viewer.
    In the end, I agree that we need to communicate more openly with one another. I think the problem lies in the fact that many times once a discussion ensues, it often quickly turns south. We often let our feelings get the best of us, and we close others off in the process. My approach has always been to listen and learn as much as I can. Through truly understanding the reasons for a particular viewpoint we can begin the process of disproving false notions. I can't fight what I don't understand. Of course, it helps once we have sorted out our own personal demons and cleared our minds of our own internal issues.

    I have not yet seen the film you referenced, but thank you for your recommendation. It sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy.

  8. Aesha (Wow I wish we were on a first name basis)

    I've stalked (and I mean that in the nicest, uncreepy way possible) your career from my bedroom in Ohio to my dorm room in New York to now. Recent college grad and dancer that I am. 21 years old, approximately 19 of those years were extremely sheltered, I have little to no life experience outside of the dance studio.

    That being said, I find that what I have experienced based on my race happened in the studio; because, let's be honest that's where I was 95% of the time. Growing up being the only black girl (of a dark complexion, no less) is not aesthetically pleasing to a group that's supposed to look as one. I undoubtedly could draw an eye - and not even for messing up. Which is probably the next best way to make someone look at you in the corps. That tangled web you spoke of? I know that they know, that I know I'm the only black girl in this studio. I know that they know that I know my body and I look nothing like the other girls.

    The subconscious mind can be a terribly negative place given the chance. Race is a dangerous thing to talk about, but it can be even more dangerous being ignored sometimes. I want the artistry and art I worked so hard to learn to be shown and respected. I want to be given a chance, but I have a better chance at dancing in a company where I won't..."throw off the aesthetics". Unfortunately I think race will be the huge pink elephant in the studio for a while more. "I know you know that I know" but we're not going to acknowledge it.... you're a dancer and I'm a dancer. So less talk, and more dance.

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  10. Hi Aesha,
    I am soooo happy that I've found your blog!! For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading your blogs and interviews and trying to figure out when I should post my opinion and reply to one of your many questions. In response to your latest blog, honestly it is sad that there aren't many black ballerina's; I personally think we just aren't "recognized" yet in ballet companies and that racism still does exist within the ballet, just in a soft form.

    My name is Katlyn and like "Ms. Epiphany" my sister and I have admired your beautiful ballet pictures for many years. And yes, we both have a large poster of you on one of our walls!
    As a young black Canadian ballerina growing up my parents took me to many ballets, but it wasn't until I saw Alonzo King’s Line’s Ballet perform that I felt like ballet was so beautiful to watch that I cried. I loved watching other ballet companies perform, but after a while I felt like every dancer I watched looked the same, and I felt increasingly that I couldn't relate to them. In one of your blogs you talked about your drive to change the way ballet is viewed (which is still my goal, so I'm happy I'm getting to change it with you). You’re completely right about how black dancers are viewed as better contemporary dancers and white dancers are the ballerinas. In the first ballet company I danced in I always was chosen for contemporary work. I had hard, sharp, powerful roles, which isn't a bad thing because I was able to really perfect those roles, and still to this day I am continually first and second cast contemporary pieces....but honestly I would love to do a lilac fairy or Coppelia role, or even the white swan in swan lake. Sometimes I can see why some black ballerinas may not be chosen for those roles because our body type is more curvy or we have more muscular thighs. While that makes sense, my question is what about the black ballerinas that have changed their bodies as much as possible and can do any and everything the other dancers can do but aren't recognized? Personally I think there are a lot of black ballerinas out there, they're just not recognized yet!

    I am a black ballerina, I presently dance with Ballet West in Salt Lake City. One of the questions I have for you, Aesha, is how to start to get more recognized in the world as a black ballerina. I want to move up in the rankings, I would love to dance at that festival that one of the other ladies just posted!! I am classically trained; I actually trained at the National Ballet School of Canada for a couple of years, Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and some smaller but professional ballet schools. I've worked with many different choreographers, dancing good roles first and second cast. The point I'm trying to make is that there are a lot of black ballerinas out there, but they haven't yet gotten that break or just simply been recognized as a beautiful ballerina.

    I do understand what you’re saying about the exposure in black communities, but there still are many of us that have had that exposure and just want to show the world that there are good black ballerinas out there who just haven't gotten a chance in the spotlight!

    I hope I haven't gotten too much off topic from what you’re discussing in today’s blog, but honestly racism still does exist in classical ballet companies. I completely agree with you that more professional ballet schools should start hiring black ballet teachers, because I've honestly never had one until working with Lauren Anderson. And yes, I do think we need to expose young and old people of African communities to ballet and the arts. But, like any other sport they need to be able to see our race first in the light to start to believing, as sadly as that is, that it’s possible!

  11. Dear Kat,

    I feel your frustration, as I am sure many other dancers following this blog do as well. I don't have the answers, and I don't feel that any of us do. That is precisely why this issue continues to be talked about to this day. Part of the reason I started my The Swan Dreams Project, was to try and bring to light a lot of the pain that we as African-American dancers go through. I think it's important to spotlight not only our potential as dancers, but our deep desires to be seen in roles we are seldom cast in. Although, as you know, it is so much bigger than just getting the role. It is being given the opportunity to be seen in a different light. To fight the stereotype.

    Please feel free Katlyn, to contact me via facebook or send me your email. We can chat more about this subject as well as address more of your questions and concerns. Much more that what I could do in a short blog response. I am sure we could go back and forth for some time. I started this blog to provide a space for this type of support or just provide a space to vent.


  12. Can you please post videos that are current, and maintain a video diary as you are involved in new works? I am a fan and can't find much video with you anywhere on the web. I like still photography but dance is a medium of movement. Thankyou. A fan

  13. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your interest in my work. Unfortunately, I am retired from dance. I retired to devote time to my family ( I currently have a new addition to the family as well). I am not sure if you are aware of the goals I have with The Swan Dreams Project, but photography was exactly the medium I wanted to use since the message I am trying to spread goes beyond the art of ballet. I am sorry that I can not fulfill what you are looking for. Many of the companies I have danced with don't allow videos beyond the company.

    Again, thank you for your interest in my work and patronage to site. If I choose to return to the stage, I will look to post something at that time.