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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A shortage of African American Ballet Instructors?

A Conversation With Ballerina Andrea Long-Naidu

Andrea Long-Naidu

" Yes you will find that one Black male teacher but how many females do you know? Not many."  This sentiment was expressed by Ballerina Andrea Long-Naidu, former member of the New York City Ballet and former principal dancer of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Regardless of Ms. Long-Naidu's credentials and extensive resume, she still was left frustrated by her pursuit of a position as a Ballet Instructor. As she stood by watching others receive these positions with far fewer qualifications, it left her wondering whether the color of her skin factored into the equation. Prior to reading Ms. Long- Naidu's comment, I never gave much thought to the fact that I never had an African-American Ballet Instructor during my training.

The lack of African American Instructors is an apparent reality, which is rarely discussed. My desire to  present this topic here is to initiate dialogue in hopes of finding a solution, or at the very least, try to uncover the root causes of this problem. The following is a portion of my interview with Andrea Long-Naidu regarding this topic:

Question:  You recently brought up a discussion regarding the challenges you are finding while trying to pursue a teaching position as a black dancer. Why do you feel the color of your skin was the issue, and not that the pursuit of a teaching career in bigger institutions is just as challenging for anyone? As an accomplished dancer what does that say to you?

Response:  Due to the economy teacher jobs are hard to come by so we are all struggling no matter what color you are. With this being said I find it is easier for non-Black teachers to get employed. First of all most major schools are not overflowing with students of color so most students of these schools have not be exposed to other teachers. For example I taught at a predominately white school but due to my approach and being a woman of color I appeared to be unsettling for the students. Yes I am a demanding teacher and believe in physically correcting a student as I was as a young student but this made students extremely uncomfortable. I feel due to the limited amount of dancers in major companies that are dancing on stage, the playing field for teachers of color is limited. Yes you will find that one Black male teacher but how many females do u know? Not many.

Question:  Did you have many teachers of color? If not when was your first experience with one and what difference did that make for you as a dancer?

Response:    The first time I experienced a teacher of color was at Dance Theatre of Harlem. It was a whole new world that exposed me to so much more. First of all I have found people who looked like me and I could feel good about me for they were always pushing me to be better and telling me that I had talent. Don't get me wrong I was blessed to have wonderful teachers of different races but to look at a beautiful Black woman telling me I could be a ballerina was just so inspiring for me. Someone who knew what I was going to face but still believed in me was the force that kept me going.

Question: What needs to happen for things to turn around? What can we do, if anything?

Response:    What needs to be done? That is a hard question to answer for some many things need to happen.Parents need to expose them to different people and not keep them in a plastic bubble for this is not the realities of the world. More dancers of color need to be seen and accepted in the major schools. The Ballet world has to let go of old perceptions and step into the new world. This is America and we need to demand the dance world to start seeing this. We must start to contribute money, talent and expertise to uplift dancers of color. Put our interest into institutions that are about diversity.

I now wonder if the presence of an African American instructor would have improved my self image and sense of confidence, particularly in the earlier years. Though I cannot answer with any certainty, I do know that the short time Andrea and I were together at the New York City Ballet gave me a tremendous sense of strength and security. I felt a sense of camaraderie and kinship that comes from shared experience. 

I am grateful to Andrea, not only for her participation in this week's post but also for her encouragement and support during our time together in New York City Ballet.

I also spoke with the Artistic Director of City Ballet of Los Angeles Robyn Gardenhire, who also runs a school, regarding this issue and she had this to say:

City Ballet of Los Angeles Director, Robyn Gardenhire

"As a teacher I have found that my job is to give what I know to all student, but what I have found my biggest challenge is in the black dance schools which is why I have my own now. I had to make sure parents and studio owners don't push the race card when their child does not get into a school or a job I think that once that child gets it into his or her head it becomes a go to thing and I tell them when I see what the weakness may be to work harder on that and to see more directors you will find a home. As a ballet dancer the line the grace, elegance the body must fit no matter what race you are we must meet the standards and we do quit often. And when we meet all of that and you don't get the job or the school we then see its a color thing, and we must keep going because as you know someone will love you for who you are and what you bring to the world of dance."

I am aware that all students have their own personal battles to overcome, and a teacher who understands their individual story and needs would benefit each and everyone of them tremendously. However, with the scarcity of African Americans in ballet, the rarity of images on display of African American ballerinas and the seemingly small ratio of African American teachers, it's no wonder that these students may feel defeated before they ever truly begin. An environment that neither celebrates nor acknowledges a person's individuality can often be disheartening.

Artful Inspirations

 I wanted to post this just for the love of it. For me it's an image of raw passion and talent waiting and willing to be nurtured. It's a reminder of innocence and abandonment which we all possessed as we entered this world of dance.

Twinkle Toes by Henry C. Porter