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

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is There a Lack of Interest from the African-American Community for Ballet?: A Conversation with Dancer Ikolo Griffin

Now that we are all back from vacation and our normal lives have gone back into full swing, I have been spending the majority of my time working on a very personal project that I look forward to sharing with you all very soon. My absence from the blog was do to this work that I hope will produce positive and inspiring results. 

Photo Ikolo Griffin by Sandy Lee
While conducting research for this project, I discovered an interview which included myself and fellow dancer, Ikolo Griffin, published in the San Francisco Gate in 2007. The interview was conducted by Rachel Howard and raised some very important issues that should be addressed. When asked about the disparity of African-Americans in the ballet world, my fellow interviewee stated the following:

"The African American culture isn't that interested in ballet as an art form," Griffin said. "I think that's what eventually caused DTH to sink. There wasn't enough interest from the black community to support a ballet company. But African American culture has its successes in music, in sports, in jazz, in so many other fields. And the ballet has enough support from other communities."

After revisiting this interview, I contacted Ikolo to elaborate on his comments, as well as respond to a few others. Below are the questions I submitted to Mr. Griffin, as well as his responses.

In your opinion, why is there so little participation and interest for ballet by African-Americans?

Fundamentally, ballet in America today rarely offers relatable programming for the African-American community, and there is not enough effort to attract new and diverse audiences. People go to the theater to see something of themselves; to see something they can relate to and feel a genuine emotional or cultural connection. You can’t blame people for not being interested in something that is not emotionally, culturally, or artistically interesting to them. If ballet is to be a truly American art form, it should reflect all aspects of the American condition and thereby attract more interest and participation from all communities. The only place that I’ve really seen ballet inspire diverse communities was at Dance Theatre of Harlem, where despite financial setbacks there remains an active focus on building new audiences through educational programs and a repertoire that truly reflects American diversity. Another unique thing about my experience at DTH was seeing people on stage who looked like me, and knowing that young people from many cultures would see someone on stage they could relate to. It was very difficult to be a company member during DTH’s struggle for financial support and eventual closing in 2004, but it heartens me to see the potential for a new company growing. Because it’s not just about being the one black person in the corps, it’s about being given an opportunity to succeed at higher levels and to become a principal dancer. That will truly make a difference in how the African-American community can look at ballet as an art form.

You commented regarding the successes in other fields made by African-Americans and that ballet had enough support from other communities. Do you feel that it's not really necessary to push the issue over greater African-American presence in ballet, since we have so many other successes to be proud of? Would ballet even benefit from African-American presence, and why/why not?

Let’s say this: Ballet would benefit from becoming a comprehensive reflection of American culture. In this economic climate, arts organizations are in need of support on all fronts, and ballet companies will need to diversify if the art form is to survive in this century and beyond. In that sense, ballet would truly benefit from the participation of many diverse cultural communities. African-Americans have a lot to offer the ballet world, but until the doors of diversity are truly open, it will always be a struggle. I would love to see more beautiful black ballerinas on stage, and I believe that the ballet world and the African-American community would benefit from that presence.

Do you believe the problem starts in the African-American community first or the ballet community as a whole needs to take more action?

I believe the problem starts in the ballet world, and the problem is discrimination. Becoming a ballet dancer requires not only a specialized and highly trained physique, but also a tireless work ethic and, at times, a very thick skin. Dance is a visual art form; outward appearances are scrutinized to the smallest detail, so it’s no surprise that skin color comes into play. All dancers of color that I’ve met have stories of encountering the sometimes blatant cultural insensitivity that has become ingrained the fabric of ballet. The tradition of classicism in ballet can still make room for cultural diversity and the acceptance of new visions and ideals; this is how an art form evolves to remain relevant and important in the world at large. This is what needs to change in order to revolutionize the face of ballet and make new precedents for dancers of color in America.

Mr. Griffin made it clear to me that this is of course his opinion, developed from his personal experience in the ballet world. While we may only have are our own unique experiences in the end, my hope is that we can use our unique experiences and perspectives to improve the current and future prospects of young dancers.

Following my interview with Mr. Griffin, he introduced the topic of mixed heritage dancers and requested an opportunity to speak more on the subject.  Here Mr. Griffin has opened up about some of the challenges he has confronted, introduces us to his organization, as well as his thoughts on where ballet needs to head in the future.

In June 2001, I left my home in San Francisco for a new life in New York with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I didn’t know what to expect, and I certainly got more than I had bargained for. I finally found myself around people I could relate to, and this is how I realized my significance as a mixed heritage ballet dancer. I had grown up in the San Francisco Ballet School from the age of eight and danced with the professional company for seven years when I realized I had hit the glass ceiling. I could have spent my whole career there and never made it past the corps de ballet. At DTH I saw my potential reflected in the people around me, whereas at SFB there was always somebody with a gold medal and a luscious head of hair to complement the leading roles. I had been restricted by my own success as the “hometown outreach boy” in San Francisco, and at DTH I had a new opportunity for my talents to shine. And they did! Before DTH, I never would have imagined being able to perform leading roles on opening night at Lincoln Center State Theater. For three short years I was truly a principal dancer in my own right; I grew most artistically in those three years because I could see the success of other dancers of color around me. There was something about being around other mixed-heritage dancers that took away the pressure of “tokenism” and allowed me to relax enough to open up and grow as an artist. I had finally found a place to share the experience of being a mixed heritage ballet dancer with others like me.
Arthur Mitchell taught me the importance of having a cause behind my dancing, and that we represent something greater than ourselves. I’ve taken that and applied it to my mission of spreading mixed-heritage awareness in my home community. For the past ten years or so, I have partnered with my best friend, Nathalie-Andree Muzac, to create Living Bridges, an effort dedicated to mixed-heritage awareness education. We assert that people of mixed heritage are not “halves” but wholes. We must allow ourselves to feel wholly who we are, to acknowledge every cultural aspect of our heritage and ancestry as a complete part of our being. For me, that means owning both my father’s African roots and my mother’s Jewish traditions. I’m not half-black, half-Jewish, I’m fully both. Often, people of mixed heritage feel forced to choose or trapped in between, never feeling like they fit in with any culture. In some cultures, being mixed can diminish status and devalue an individual’s cultural rights. We are teaching empowerment through lectures, classes, and dance presentations to show the cultural richness of being mixed heritage and to encourage others to become living bridges in their own communities. It’s this cultural richness that needs to be incorporated into ballet as a classical art form in the modern era.

I encourage you to read about his organization, Living Bridges, at Http://

Despite our varying backgrounds, many of us can identify with the feeling of being an outsider, and understand that feelings of marginalization or tokenism is unhealthy in any professional environment. Diverse and inclusive environments provide space for individuals to grow, flourish and share their unique identity with the world.

I want to thank Mr. Griffin for his generosity in willing to participate and open up about such a personal and sensitive topic. I believe such honesty and openness is not only cathartic, but builds bridges of understanding by making us realize how truly connected we are to one another.


  1. Oops! You may have not seen my previous comment due to me forgetting to type in that word verification. I will retype it when I get a chance.

    Until then ... Something I just thought of. Classical music. We all know that there is a lot of classical music in ballet. Ballet classes features a lot of piano. Ballet performances feature a lot of symphony music.

    Do black people like classical music at all? Is classical music promoted within the black community at all?

    We all know that white people have brought rap, hip hop, jazz, etc. into their lives. White people like me also listen to this trance, chill music that is the equivilent of classical music, only with electronic instruments as in this example of DJ Tiesto's Adagio For Strings:

    And in America it is mostly white people make the classical music that accompanies movies on the silver screen or the great operas.

    Do black people expand outside of rap, hip hop and jazz into the world of classical music? What do black people who love classical music do to promote it within the black community? Because one of the requirements to years worth of ballet dance training would be that you even like classical music.

  2. Watch this Youth America Grand Prix documentart trailer called First Position. At 1 minute 40 seconds, Michaela talks about the stereotypes of black classical ballerinas and what she intends to be.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful piece. Mr. Griffin's discussion of cultural insensitivity in teaching ballet really hit home for me. I began thinking of my early training as a young black girl. In the 80s, when most teachers didn't have the anatomical knowledge that we do now, it was an either you're born with it or you are not. Several (white) students, one, my best friend of 30 years and counting, were able to go on to SAB and major ballet companies. Our teacher didn't know what to do with my flat feet, muscular body and lordotic spine. She encouraged my strength and my movement instincts, but I never received the technical nurturing and the encouragement to work my feet, to strengthen my core and to stretch (not that all of these are uniquely African American attributes). No one helped me fix my issues, and I know my teacher saw them, as I was continually passed up for certain roles. It was unlikely that I was going to be a ballerina, but my early technical training might have been far better.

    I love ballet dearly, and now as an adult will sit and watch ballet videos on youtube for way longer than I should. I know I would have had a completely different career in dance had I found teachers who knew how to work with my body. I found where my body was supposed to have been too late in my dance life, as I finally found my teacher Birute Barodicate at The Lou Conte Dance Center at Hubbard Street, in Chicago.

    I hope other young black girls never find themselves in such a situation. I try to be that teacher for them, encouraging, honest about what they can improve and to what extent.

    What a terrific blog! I write at Mom's New Stage -
    My children are biracial which is another way I strongly connected to what Mr. Griffin had to say.

    I don't know if you have children. If you do, or if yo have any dancing friends with children, would you mind sending them my way? I do a weekly feature on an artist mother and how motherhood has affected her relationship to her creative self.

    Thank you very much.


  4. Dear Ballomane3,

    Not only do African-Americans like classical music, but there are many who are well known throughout the classical world. Going to the School of American Ballet and being in contact with Julliard students on a regular basis, I met plenty of African-American classical musicians and singers. A small search on google will lead you to the vast amounts of African-American opera singers, musicians and even some composers. The problem is the lack of exposure. You pose a good question in asking what do African-Americans who love classical music do to promote it within their community. I am not a classical musician and I don't know of any programs that are promoting classical music within more urban communities. Although, I am sure they exist, but like many of these types of organizations, they may just go under the radar. What I can say is that I myself am working diligently on trying to find ways to bring ballet into my own community. In the same way that ballet has tried to make itself more hip for the younger crowds-be it in advertising or the creation of more contemporary pieces, I to want to find a way to bring the love and appreciation of ballet to those in and around my community. It will take work and a little creativity, but I do believe that ballet, or the classical arts in general, have a place in the hearts of African-Americans as much as anyone else. Of course, there is the other problem of finding the resources to support the art form. That is an entirely different conversation but one that holds great relevance as to one of the few road blocks that inhibit more urban communities from showing more support.

    Also, thank you for sharing this wonderful link.

  5. Dear Keesha,

    I am sadden to hear of the experience you had as a young dancer, and sadly far too many far too often share this same experience. I think the more we start hiring African-American teachers to help stand as role models to all students, the more our young aspiring artists will realize the vast diversity that exists in the art world and the less often we will hear stories such as yours. No student should ever be ignored. A classroom is a place to learn and grow and teachers are there to provide that nurturing.

    I am very happy to hear that, through it all, you have continued you love of ballet. More importantly, you have found a teacher that has led you to a deeper understanding of your own body. Although, you may not have the opportunity to go back in time with this deeper understanding, it's never too late to enjoy the beautiful gift of movement with the body you have a better connection with.

    I am a mother and I will most certainly send other dancing moms your way. Thank you for sharing!