When receiving dance notes you don’t believe to apply to you, you may internally say “wasn’t me” and forget the note faster than you heard it. However, what if you don’t know you’re the one doing it? Directors and teachers insist on dancers accepting every note as if it was theirs: when everyone checks themselves the error is sure to get corrected.
If we apply this advice to the problems in our industry standards, such as the racial inequalities, imagine the change that can occur. Is the dance industry racist? Some would give a quick “nope,” either because racism has never affected them or they haven’t heard the microaggressions personally. However, those who haven’t experienced it, don’t have the right to answer that question. If we practice the art of listening and hear the dancers who have experienced it firsthand, a different picture of the dance industry is painted. Many racist comments have been caused by those who claim to be anti-racist, and don’t realize the severity of what they’re saying. Whether many deny it or not, dancers of color have experienced a very different dance community, through all stages of a dancer’s career, and filled with moments of unintentional racism.
Remembering one’s studio life usually brings both good and bad memories, but were any of your memories directly related to your race? Allison (name changed for privacy) recalls her time growing up in a dance studio where she was one of very few people of color, and the only for a time. “In contemporary or ballet classes they’d laugh at my flat feet. I was struggling with terrible achilles flexibility and tendonitis. But it’s my body; there’s nothing I can do to change that. Those critiques told me I wasn’t ever going to be good at those genres and made me pull closer to tap and hip hop.” But her love of hip hop wasn’t there from the start. “I was always placed front and center in hip hop dances. I never understood why, because I knew I wasn’t the best in the room. After being told enough that you’re supposed to be good at something, you begin to embrace it and I became good at it. Much later, I realized I was being used for being black to win competitions. My hair was completely fried after leaving my studio, having been forced to chemically straighten it for years. I didn’t realize many of these things were wrong until I left the south and moved to California, where my friends informed me that this was not normal.”
For everyone who hasn’t lived through the perspective of being a minority in dance, notice how you’re responding to stories of unintentional racism.
Allison’s worst experience was supplied directly from a friend in her studio. “She would throw around the n-word, while singing songs and in casual conversation. Once when I arrived scared to class after being pulled-over, she said to not worry because ‘only the shady-looking people get arrested.’ I continued to feel racism, therefore I talked directly to her and she brushed it off. I then approached my studio director, who was known for dealing with these issues well. Students were often punished for being disrespectful or even as far as removed from competition dances. Instead, I was not helped at all. We left the conversation with the girl not even apologizing. I wasn’t protected like everyone else in my studio and my concerns were treated like they weren’t real.”
Another musical theater performer, who has also chosen to stay anonymous, experienced blatant disregard and lack of respect for his mixed-race. “On my second day of college in my musical theatre class, my teacher stops me 8 bars into singing and asks ‘how black are you?’ I said ’50-percent,” and she responded, ‘well, I just don’t see it.’ But then proceeded to cast me only in black-roles… some time later, I ran into that teacher again and their partner came up to my face and said, ‘Wow, he is white! I was also told not to cut my naturally curly hair because ‘I’ll lose my race.’” He recalls the most hurtful comment coming from this favorite professor, “She once greeted me saying, ‘Hi, my little monkey.’ I don’t think she did it out of a place of malice, but it goes to show you that people aren’t careful.’”
The professional dance world is equally filled with micro aggressions, as told by Jaitlyn, a dancer based out of Atlanta. “I’ve had a director walk into an audition room and say ‘we’re only looking for Caucasian dancers today,’ and this wasn’t for positions that needed to be cast Caucasian for any reason… I understand there are plenty of reasons why someone wouldn’t get chosen at an audition: height, hair color, etc. But we also have to add race to that list… the majority of casts have one or two ‘token’ dancers of color, and the rest is Caucasian. If we are given equal opportunities from the start, this wouldn’t be an issue.”
Jaitlyn also recalls performing a stage show that had a meet and greet directly following each performance. “Shows would go extremely well, and we had a diverse cast who treated everyone as equals.” However, the audience was less accepting. “The amount of audience members and young dancers [who] would never want pictures with myself or my other black colleagues [was noticeable]. Everyone would go up to their “favorite dancer” of the show and want a picture with them and the non-white members of the cast were never asked. No discredit to them, but it showed me how little I was being watched onstage, plus with such a small cast there was no way to not notice half of the cast. I was always feeling like I had not been in the show. I’m constantly having to work harder to prove that I even belong in the room. Most people who are lazy are called just that: lazy. If I’m lazy then I’m fitting the stereotype. The amount of times I’ve been told I’m ‘good for a black girl,’ or I’m ‘technical for a black girl.’ It’s unreal. Why can’t I be seen as just a ‘good dancer?’”
It’s my body; there’s nothing I can do to change that.
For everyone who hasn’t lived through the perspective of being a minority in dance, notice how you’re responding to stories of unintentional racism. Are you practicing the art of listening or finding ways to debunk them? Are you saying to yourself, “I also had to alter my hair,” “Hamilton is a diverse cast,” or the ever-favorite “the dance industry is hard for everyone.” Yes, everyone has their own struggles, but why do these microaggressions still continue to happen? Racial inequalities exist: it’s a fact. The surprising part is the push-back for the fight for justice, from both the performing industry and the rest of the country.
Dance is an incredible art, one that everyone should have the privilege to experience at its best. It isn’t fair that all races don’t have the same experience in dance. It isn’t fair that we aren’t doing everything in our power to make the dance industry inclusive for everyone. While many are quick to claim they’re not the one causing the harm, are we still checking ourselves to truly make sure we are not a part of it, especially when it’s something as serious as the mistreatment of others? Being truly anti-racist means doing everything in one’s power to make change. The only way to dismantle these problems is to listen about them, learn from them, and begin to fix them. Be completely honest with yourself, embrace change in others, and do everything in your power to move forward.