‘We are still like unicorns’

24 februari 2017

Het Nationale Ballet organiseerde onlangs de internationale balletconferentie Postioning Ballet. De top van de balletwereld kwam er bijeen om te debatteren en te reflecteren op een aantal actuele thema's: erfgoed, diversiteit en identiteit.

Theresa Ruth Howard – oud-danser, journalist, en initiatiefneemster van Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet – hield een keynote over diversiteit in ballet. Een bevlogen betoog over openheid, diversiteit en verantwoordelijkheid. 
"All you have to do is invite people in."

"I would like to thank Ted Brandsen, Peggy Olislaegers and the Dutch National Ballet for inviting me here today. It is a tremendous honor and responsibility to speak to this esteemed audience on diversity in ballet.

I was a ballerina, I am still black, and in 2015 I launched Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, which curates the stories of black ballet dancers around the world. We are still like unicorns and I wanted make the invisible visible.

Diversity has become an international hot topic. The conversation is cyclic like Halley’s Comet, and circular, we go around and around end up in almost the same position. We have yet to achieve sustainable change which would render meetings like this unnecessary. I think the problem is the way we have these conversations, like Einstein’s definition of insanity: we are doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.

‘‘Let's take the challenge to stay open, to let the information land in tender space that seldom sees light’’

I know that in Europe, Asia and Russia the history and demographics are quite different and this might be a new subject. However in the United States this is a running issue and we have been hammering away and missing the nail for decades.Today I will would love to share with you my observation about these discussions.

In America conversations about race and diversity have become corporatized, and sanitized. Under the auspice of political correctness, we talk around the subject, but we’re not afraid if offending, we’re afraid of the confrontation. We tend to intellectualize the subject, because when you stay in your head and disconnect your heart you extract the humanness from the issue, it becomes a math problem you have to solve. We go through the motions not fully invested or committed, in the dance that’s marking. For the most part people leave events like this feeling good for having participated, and to a degree, relieved because they escaped unchallenged and unscathed. And if that is the case then what is the point? Are we just going through the obligatory motions to save face, or manage our brands?

I representeer de uitzondering, nooit de regel - Theresa Ruth Howard - Positioning Ballet


‘‘As ballet became a representation of nationalistic pride, the bodies of the people were employed to carry that message’’

What we in America are starting to realize is that the root of the conversation is bias —  race, gender, or sexual orientation. These biases are systemic and chronic issues that are configured into the foundation of our nation. They are caustic, and corrosive and not the best of what we as human beings are capable of, and they are not what we like to call American… and yet it is our reality. That is a hard pill for us to swallow. People like to think that the arts reflect the best of humanity, well the arts are a microcosm of the world, formed in its image reflecting the same ethics and values — just with sparkles.

In America some are sick of the diversity conversation, irritated at having to have it at all, and I get that. Trust me, people of color are tired of having it too. Some might think it’s not your problem… but you are the only people who can fix it. Some of you might feel like it’s a trend. But this is not a fad for me, it is my life. Today I propose that we try this whole thing in a different way and maybe we can get a different result. But first a trigger warning: As we discuss these difficult topics, we will be triggered. We might recognize ourselves in unflattering statements, our pain might come of someone else’s mouth, you might feel blamed, responsible or powerless. Let’s take the challenge to stay open, to let the information land in tender space that seldom sees light. Let it settle in the folds of your humanity and take root. It will feel like a grain of sand in an oyster, irritating and uncomfortable but let it be slowly transformed into a priceless thing of beauty.

As we discuss these messy topics, I ask that we resist the urge to defend, justify, or excuse. Instead just listen and entertain the possibility that there is a reality that you are not privy to, you can neither see nor feel. And this reality is real, it may not be yours but it’s valid. I ask that you take the frustration and anger, as emotions, not directed at you, but being presented to you, human to human for your consideration. I ask that you trade your skepticism for empathy and your cynicism for compassion. Evoke empathy, and let that empathy allow your eyes to change, to let in this divergent perspective.

Now, the question is: How much is ballet’s identity wed to its heritage, and does that heritage leave space for diversity?

Having originated in the courts of Europe, ballet was, and in many ways still is an elitist art form rooted in privilege and exclusion. As we discuss access and participation in ballet, we should ask ourselves: If the original rules were applied today, how many of us here would be eligible to participate?

‘‘We are not the creators of the problem but we are by-products of a system that we are participating in and perpetuating by default’’

As ballet became a representation of nationalistic pride, the bodies of the people were employed to carry that message. Schools were open and commoners granted access, thus it made sense that national ballet companies looked a certain way, they looked like the people of the country. However, when nations began to colonize and import people of color without thought to how it would affect the demographics of their countries things got tricky. Now, no matter how unintentional there are bodies of color that are part of the national, cultural fabric. So if the heritage of ballet is as a nationalistic representation, then it would stand to reason that these colorful threads be woven in.

Countries that are products of the unintentional diversification of its citizens are in the midst of an identity crisis, trying to reconcile what they were, are, and most importantly what they are becoming. It is a battle against the inevitability of change. The resistance to diversification or integration is about maintaining an identity, a heritage of pre-browness. Winston Churchill said, 'History is written by the victors'. In this case, the victors are the men who constructed the foundational tenets of our countries, the people who defined what it was to be French, English, American, Russian or Dutch. The people who assign value to everything including standards of beauty and art, or characteristics like intelligence, elegance, and refinement. They decide who gets to participate, and on what level.

It is abundantly clear the people who brought those brown bodies to foreign shores never intended them to become 'citizens', to have rights, or participate on any other level beyond the purpose they were brought fulfill. People of color were never supposed to become members of society let alone represent it, and therein lies the real problem.

We, the people in this room are the residual effects of sins of the fathers of our nations. We are not the creators of the problem but we are by products of a system that we are participating in and perpetuating by default. This heritage that we hold with such sanctity is both the beauty of who we are, and the bias.

The questions you as artistic directors, descendants of the victors have to ask yourselves are:

  • Are you writing fiction, or nonfiction in regards to your national identity with your company?
  • Are you sustaining a false narrative that supports an incomplete representation your nation?
  • Are you aware that the resistance to diversity feels like a commitment to 'whiteness'?

‘‘As an African American Ballerina, as an intellectual, articulate woman I represent the exception, never a rule’’

I would like to close by painting for you a human portrait. As an African American woman, I have been asked many things by white people regarding my race. I have been asked why black people are so angry, why so many black men are in prison, and Lord knows I've been asked about my hair. The one question I have never been asked is how it feels to be black in America or the world at large.

I’ve never been asked what it feels like to inhabit spaces that weren't intended for me, or to almost never see myself represented in the standard of beauty, intelligence or grace - Michelle Obama might have singlehandedly changed that perception. Albeit that raises another issue, people like Barack and Michelle Obama, or Oprah Winfrey are looked at as exceptions to our race. As an African American ballerina, as an intellectual, articulate woman I represent the exception, never a rule. This is how the victors wrote my character in history.

No level of articulation can express how stressful it is to live in a brown body, the amount of pressure is indescribable. Black ballet dancers carry the weight of their race on our backs into the studio — every pirouette or arabesque represents our race’s collective ability of to be professional ballet dancers, if one fails, doors close for others. We are raised knowing that we must not only be good, but be better just to be considered equal. Then our talent, our 'specialness' gets attributed more to our pigment then our performance due to the novelty of our presence in the space. Now consider the courage it takes for students of color entering the rarified world of ballet, a world of whiteness, to be the only one in the school, or your class. The next time you pass one of them in your hallways think of that, actually don’t be in your head about it, drop it down to your heart.

As directors I ask you:

  • Are the aesthetics of ballet purely about technique and artistry, or do those elements have to come in a form that you can identify with, something that looks like you?
  • What are your eyes seeing when that technique and artistry is presented in varying shades and shapes?

Is it a coincidence that most of the black female ballerinas that have been accepted into major white ballet companies have been fair skinned, from Raven Wilkenson, Debra Austin, Francesca Hayward, to Misty Copeland, they are easy on the eyes. The Lauren Andersons of Houston Ballet and Michaela DePrinces are few and far between, the rainbow unicorns.

‘‘Diversity will never happen if you are afraid of the people of you are being asked to include’’

The width and breadth of this conversation as dense as the history that begot it. So what can we do? Start where you have sway. We all have a sphere of influence in our companies, circles of friends, and families. Use your life as a barometer. How much diversity exists in your personal and professional life today? If that is not up to the standard of creating change then open it up. Seek out and have conversations with people that don’t look or sound like you, who don’t agree with you and be challenged to grow. Proximity promotes familiarity, and familiarity can eradicate fear. Diversity will never happen if you are afraid of the people of you are being asked to include. We are all remarkably the same, and uniquely singular and that is the beauty of humanity. Our sameness bonds us, our differences makes us better. Creating diversity is not hard, and it does not cost money, you don’t need to draft initiatives… All you have to do is invite people in."


Theresa May Howard hield deze lezing tijdens de internationale balletconferentie Positioning Ballet, in februari 2017 georganiseerd door Het Nationale Ballet.

Lees hier meer over Theresa Ruth Howard en bekijk hier de website van Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet.