Raising the Barre: Unveiling the Colonial Legacies of Ballet

Tap. Tap. Jette. Plié. Jette. I cannot remember a time when my feet were not trained to move in that exact pattern. Over and over again. On my tiptoes ever so light; enthralled in an obsession to the pointe of perfection. Red painted lips, the acrid smell of cheap hairspray pulling back each strand of hair punishingly straight, the indistinguishable knots in your stomach from excitement —or nerves before a performance. A ritual, unique to every ballet dancer. Stained hands from the mix of fabric dye and drugstore foundation to conceal the offensively wrong coloured shoes—an unforgiving pink hue. A ritual, unique to every ballet dancer of colour. 

“Pancaking”, endearingly named in the ballet community, is a process that black and brown artists learn to navigate within the first few years of their dancing career. Pointe shoes were formerly only sold in white to help the dancers seem more angelic in compliance with the romantic ideal for women in the 18th century. With ever-changing beauty standards, ballet shoes were later designed to elongate the dancers’ legs in a continuous seamless line, thus leading to the emergence of pink shoes to blend with the skin tone of European dancers. While the goal of ballet is to achieve a look of uniformity the lack of choices for dancewear means exactly the opposite for dancers of colour, making them stick out like unwanted guests or a Kazmir Malevich painting. 

Classical ballet has its roots in European aristocracy, shaped by  French Classicism and the Renaissance period. Ballet has always been an exclusionary side of the arts – heck, that is part of its allure. Trapping you into a world of feigned nobility and privilege one relevé at a time. It does not come as a shock when ballet, with its infatuation with refinement, inevitably snakes itself around white civility. Consequently, this has led to the internalization of whiteness being synonymous with elegance and propriety. When white bodies are seen as the status quo and white femininity as ethereal, it alienates black and brown bodies – labelling them as anything but ideal. Where white dancers are seen as controlled, delicate, black dancers are categorized as too muscular, manly, everything a ballet dancer is not allowed to be. Reinforcing the exoticization of dancers of colour, the industry brands them as uncivilized, wild, uninhibited in their sexuality. A problem that especially black women face at the intersectionality of blackness and womanhood. Romanticizing white fragility—femininity only works to illustrate that ballet believes its dancers of colour to be inconsequential, only allowed to occupy a provisional place. Their existence is conditional on white adjacency.  

Ballet’s shortcomings are not limited to being racially exclusive and body restrictive. Board members’ and directors’ refusal to condemn ballet’s colonial legacies is observed firsthand by their lack of desire to discontinue racist practices found in traditional storytelling. Balanchine and Marius Petipa are revered names in ballet, rightfully so they are brilliant choreographers of their time. The intention is not to identify their unconscious racism, but rather the hope is that we can revise and adapt these dances for our time. Balanchine’s Nutcracker features a Chinaman that jumps out of a box and Asian dancers are instructed to overly accentuate their Asian features; or the depiction of the Brahmins—religiously important figures in Hinduism – as untamed, primitive men in Petipa’s Bayadère. While purists argue to preserve outdated ballet traditions, costume choices, and race-based casting, us—reformists argue for a reimagined world of ballet that can pay homage to the rich cultures it takes influences from instead of making a caricature out of them. Ballet’s storytelling abilities do not only lie in navel jewellery and orientalism—-an attitude that insurmountably undermines the talent and skills of our artists. 

The ballet industry may have made it an uphill battle for non-white dancers, yet it has seen no scarcity of talent from them. Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, exemplifies the exclusion of black ballerinas and the challenges she has faced. Her advocacy for change in the industry has recently put her in the middle of a heated controversy. In December 2019, Copeland called out the Bolshoi Theatre for their use of black face in La Bayadère. The Moscow-based theatre has declined to stop its use of blackface, citing that any changes to classical ballet would be sacrilegious and destructive to the art form. Perhaps it is important to remind Bolshoi and other ballet fundamentalists that it’s sacrilegious in the 21st century to be so apathetic to the plight of your fellow dancers, that it is destructive to ridicule and exploit racial stereotypes. Artistic traditions are important but not all are worth upholding. 

The primary concept of ballet has always been about retaining control. Restraint. Discipline. Control. Control of your torso as your leg lifts up in a graceful arabesque. Restraint of your hips as you stretch your feet into a crescent in a pas de basque. Discipline over your thoughts as you continue to hold position despite screaming joints in a pas de deux. Compliant. Malleable. The industry has gotten comfortable with our adherence to uncontested rules. Let this serve as a reminder. Under those slippers that you believe are fragile like glass, are bruises and scars that have turned our skin into brass. Blisters and battered soles have toughened up our souls. We break in half and stand right back up. Determined. Strong. Resilient. 

Ballet disparagers may cry that the public disinterest in ballet is stronger now than ever but all that provides for us—lovers of the discipline- is an opportunity for a much-needed revisionist movement. Creating a space for difficult conversations about the racist and elitist practices that are deeply entrenched in the world of ballet. Holding the industry accountable to bring forth a new age of ballet that is committed to engaging with dancers, directors, and audiences about harm reduction, colour-conscious casting, and equity in resources and opportunities. Asking ourselves why we have gotten comfortable with leadership that seeks to minimize the presence of our Black, Asian and Brown dancers by institutionalizing policies that leave them feeling unsupported. 

Ballet, like any art form, is fluid and ever-changing, reflecting the values of its time. It is in our best interest to battle its eurocentric viewpoint. It is long overdue to peel past its pretentious pedigree and reinvent an art form that no longer relies on antiquated views of femininity, politics and traditions.  An era of ballet that is no longer subservient to the white male gaze. 

Ballet has been a large part of my identity–-the rigorous training and injuries, the lasting friendships forged in cramped dressing rooms, a sense of camaraderie over late-night rehearsals. Unfortunately, ballet has never claimed me with the same fervour,  yet I remain hopeful. Hopeful for a future where pointé shoes come in rich shades of espresso, mahogany, cognac and everything in between. A future where black and brown dancers are celebrated, not tolerated.

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