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.