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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011



I came across this photo while doing some research on my last post. It was the observation in the paragraph that followed which presented an interesting topic and stirred up some uncomfortable memories from my past. The comment went as follows:

“i find the natural hair charming/interesting, esp because a black ballet dancer would almost certainly have to straighten/pull back her hair, unless the company was alt/up-and-coming/deliberately provocative. but i don’t think i’ve ever seen a picture of a black ballet dancer with a fro. natural hair, yes. fro, no.”

 This comment made me recall several instances where my hair caused me to feel distant and removed from the classical art I had grown to love. There were many ballets where the dancer was meant to wear their hair down, and the image of long flowing locks billowing through the air as the dancers movement graced the stage was a breathtaking image for all who observed. Many of the ballets highlighted hair as the dancers were required to either wear long ponytails or have lengthy hair that draped and flowed during performances. This built in aesthetic posed real challenges to many girls no matter what ethnicity, but an even greater challenge for myself and other dancers of color. Luckily, we all had tricks up their sleeves to overcome these natural challenges. One particular instance during my time at Bejart Ballet will forever stick with me. While choreographing a new piece, Maurice Bejart instructed each dancer to let down their hair to see if he could incorporate that into the piece. He instructed each girl, one by one to take down their hair, and as I stood their watching each girl’s hair fall gracefully down their backs, my insecurity begin crawling its way up my spine. My hair is textured and not prone to falling down straight like what I have seen in many ballets. I believed in protecting my hair by keeping it natural and avoiding harsh and damaging chemical perms and relaxers.  I also enjoyed the versatility that my natural hair provided. However, inside I knew this was not the image he was looking for.  I certainly had never seen any evidence that my hair type was desired as the above comment so pointedly stated. Therefore, when my turn came and I loosened my hair band—my hair puffed out crinkly and curly, not straight down.  Maurice smiled and some dancers chuckled. Luckily, I was a much more mature dancer and was able to brush off such a reaction. I could only image how such insensitivity would have affected me as a younger dancer. However, this episode still bothered me. It never feels good to be laughed at because of who you are. However, although I was offended and disappointed, I was not surprised.

    Recently I found an article from the Afro-Europe International Blog. It mentioned an episode in the Netherlands where a young Dutch girl was excluded from attending a ballet class because her hair was not worn in the required smooth bun. Actions were then taken against the school and hopefully this issue was resolved, but it does leave me torn. I do believe that ballet requires great discipline and that begins in the ballet studio. This involves a strict dress code, fierce work ethic, respectful demeanor and of course requirements on hair. I came from a school that didn't even allow girls to wear bangs. Thanks to the billion dollar hair industry, there are a plethora of options out there for achieving this "classical look." However, what happens to that little girl who may not have any of these options? Should the little girl, with hair too short to pull back in a bun or who’s too young for chemical relaxers be turned away from class? Is it fair to turn away a dancer who fits all the necessary requirements, but whose hair doesn't make the cut? Should a young dancer do whatever it takes achieve the perfect aesthetic? I struggle with my own feelings regarding this issue because there is a part of me that says, "ballet has strict requirements and we need to try our best to adhere to them.”  Strict discipline is what sets ballet apart from many other art forms." At the same time, there is the other part of me which feels that there’s more to art than hair. I feel my identity is being attacked because my hair represents who I am, my roots. Watering down my ethnicity seems to be what is expected of me and that leaves many wounds especially for a young girl just beginning to understand who she is. There is a uniformity that is required in ballet and I assume hair is part of that. Although, a blogger once wrote that I, as an African American dancer, disrupted the uniformity and clean lines of an otherwise all white performance. Should we accept such commentary as the classical standard, or should we challenge it as narrow-mindedness and prejudice?

    In all segments of life, African American women are struggling to fit into a European model. Straightening their hair helps them “fit in” while wearing their hair natural is seen as a provocative statement. Why should choosing to wear your hair naturally be seen as a statement? Recently, Sesame Street's head writer, Joey Mazzarino, was inspired to create a skit to help his daughter, as well as other young Af. Am. girls appreciate their beauty. This inspiration sparked when his daughter displayed a dislike of her own hair after playing with Barbie dolls. The video soon went viral, and even plucked at the heart strings of older African-American women. What consequences do these classical notions of beauty have on all of us?

It’s amazing to think something as little as how I wear my hair became such a big deal.