RECOGNIZING SYSTEMIC RACISM IN DANCE

By Alicia Mullikin

Contribution Acknowledgement:
Albee Abigania (Lynnwood/Everett/North Seattle), DJ Baluyot (San Jose), Cheryl Delostrinos (Los Angeles/Seattle), Imana Gunawan (Seattle), Sue Ann Huang (Seattle), El Nyberg (Seattle), Noelle Price (Detroit/Seattle), Coral Taylor (Los Angeles)

Visual Artist:
Nalisha Rangel (Seattle)

As a first generation Mexican American woman of color in the dance world I have experienced microaggressions that have caused significant barriers to my progress as a dance artist and damaged my emotional health as a person of color—and yet, what I have endured is only a drop in the bucket. Through conversations and collaboration with other dancers of color and colleagues, we named some of our personal experiences in the dance world that reinforced systemic racism. Though this is not an exhaustive list, it sheds light on some problematic power structures that contribute to continued inequity in dance. Here are a few ways you may have participated in systemic racism in dance.

FOR EDUCATORS AND DIRECTORS:

  • Saying “ballet is the foundation of all dance.”
  • Saying ballet is the most important/difficult technique.
  • Refusing to cast someone in a role because of their race. (“Clara can’t be Filipino”…why?)
  • Refusing to acknowledge or teach that Balanchine was a privileged white man who profited from the appropriation of Africanist Aesthetics (jazz), the use of Black bodies for shock value, and the reduction of race to aesthetics by exoticising Black bodies. (Do your research and stop worshipping him.)
  • Putting up with, supporting, and participating in the racist B.S. in the Nutcracker (seriously, stop).
  • Saying someone doesn’t have a “ballet body” because their body doesn’t fit your image of the thin ballerina with no butt and no chest.
  • Not casting POC because most of your dancers are White, and you don’t want the image to be broken by Black/Brown bodies, claiming “symmetry” is more important.
  • Requiring Black & Brown girls to wear pink tights and pink ballet shoes.
  • Making Black girls “tame” their hair for ballet class and making statements like, “Well, I just don’t know what to do with your hair,” to Black dancers.
  • Making Black and Brown dancers dye their pointe shoes and accessories. (Production of pointe shoes in a variety of skin tones didn’t start until 2018 and colors other than pink/peach are STILL not easily accessible.)
  • Allowing cis White males to dominate the choreography world and leadership roles.
  • Talking about how far we’ve come but not recognizing how long it’s taken. (It took ABT 75 years to appoint their first Black female principal, Misty Copeland, in 2015. NYCB cast its first Black Marie, Charlotte Nebres, in 2019, after half a century of Nutcrackers. PNB just changed some of the choreography from the Chinese Tea variation to be less stereotypical.)
  • Teaching about the history of Ballet without its cultural context as a European ethnic/folk dance.
  • Saying/thinking that someone lacks “technique” because they don’t point their feet or straighten their legs.
  • Referring to ballet and modern as “technique” in a way that implies every other genre of dance does not require formal training, skill, or technique. 
  • Rejecting a student from your program because they lack ballet training.
  • Making ballet and modern dance requirements for a dance degree but making hip hop, jazz, and other genres electives. 
  • Offering multiple levels for ballet/modern and NOT offering advanced level courses in styles derivative of Black communities: jazz, hip hop/urban, etc…
  • Only hiring/featuring white-passing and/or light-skinned people of color in efforts to “diversify.”
  • Hiring token Black folks to teach ballet and modern. (That’s still putting significance on Euro-centric styles.)
  • Having White full-time faculty and adjunct POC teachers.
  • Refusing to hire a hip hop teacher at a university because they do not have a masters in dance when hip hop is not offered broadly at a collegiate level and certainly not at a masters level. This is a system set up to keep Black/Brown folks and their dance forms out of colleges and to continue to invalidate their contributions to the dance world. (Dance Departments need to demand change.)
  • Valuing lines over rhythm, poise over grit, or abstraction over substance.
  • Using the one Black or Brown person on your poster or recruitment literature. 
  • Having classes called “Contemporary Issues in Dance,” “Dance History,” “Ballet History,” “Dance Appreciation,” or anything similar and never speaking DIRECTLY about race.
  • Not understanding that equity means giving POC dancers added support, not just allowing them to grace your school/company. (Equality is NOT sufficient to combat systemic racism.)
  • Teaching hip hop classes without knowing where the steps came from.
  • Calling all street styles “hip hop.”
  • Not teaching about the history of jazz and tap dance coming from Black communities.
  • Teaching that Bob Fosse is the father of jazz.
  • Making an assumption that the Black/Brown person walking into your dance studio is there to take hip hop.
  • Not teaching about the contributions of Black dancers/choreographers in ballet/modern. (There are more than just Alvin Ailey.) 
  • Not teaching about the racist history and appropriation of African, Indigenous, and Asian cultures by white dancers/choreographers.
  • Not recognizing the intersections of race and class, or the implications of Black and Brown families having barriers to generating wealth, and then…
    • Assuming all dancers have had the ability/funds to take intensives.
    • Assuming all dancers have had the ability/funds to take formal classes.
    • Assuming dancers who are not taking intensives or formal classes are not serious about dance.
    • Assuming all dancers have access to transportation.
    • Assuming all dancers can afford to buy the required uniform and costumes.
    • Assuming that all dancers’ families speak English.
    • Assuming all dancers’ families can afford to buy a ticket to watch the performance/show.
    • Assuming the dancers’ families are used to watching concert dance. 
    • Assuming all dancers’ families are supportive in their decision to pursue a dance career.
  • Giving scholarships for talent, instead of potential (a practice that does not take into account access/barriers to formal classes).
  • Giving scholarships to students who have had the ability to take classes/intensives, rather than the student who studied dance at home/public school/community centers, (setting one up for success and the other up for a life of student loans, repeating the cycle of systemic poverty/racism).
  • Charging an astronomical amount for college, not offering scholarships to POC, and then being surprised when they drop out.
  • Giving feedback/tips/suggestions to POC folks without asking if it is wanted/necessary. (This includes your students.)
  • Assuming that POC choreographers are making the work for everyone. 
  • Assuming that, because you don’t understand the work of a POC choreographer, it doesn’t have value.
  • Being upset when the lyrics to a song or poetry is in another language and offers no translation. (White folks have the privilege of having their message. understood/heard/listened to because it is the dominant culture/language. It isn’t our job to make sure you get it; if you care enough, you’ll do the work.)
  • Assuming that your POC friends/colleagues are not receiving grants because they need help with grant writing. (Nope. We write fine thanks. It’s just systemic-racism preventing us from getting grants.) 
  • Asking Black and Brown dancers to “be a little more urban/street” (and more broadly, wanting POC dancers to fit within stereotypes).
  • Teaching all dance classes where the teacher is the authority and students are simply supposed to imitate, not considering how various dance forms were originally taught. (This assumes that all dance can be taught separate from culture.)

FOR ORGANIZATIONS & GRANTORS:

  • Funding/Granting/Producing/Promoting the same White folks over and over and over again.
  • Funding/Granting/Producing/Promoting folks that engage in cultural appropriation.
  • Funding/Granting/Producing/Promoting people just because they are Black/Brown without understanding their message/intent/purpose as an artist.
  • Funding/Granting/Producing/Promoting Black folks but not Black Trans folks.
  • Rejecting a grant application because you “didn’t get it” or “it’s not relatable.” (Sounds like you need to educate yourself.)
  • Paying White choreographers more than POC choreographers.
  • Using the excuse that you didn’t hire/fund/cast any Black or Brown folks because “there weren’t any.” (Sounds like you didn’t look hard enough, recruit in the right places, or build trust in those communities.)
  • Expecting Black/Brown folks to work/perform for free.
  • Only promoting your work as a company/organization in affluent communities or White communities.
  • Having an all/mostly White company or organization and then trying to make or create work on social issues. (Your lack of intersectionality isn’t cutting it.)
  • Having an all/mostly White board of directors.
  • Having staff/company members of color but providing no real opportunities for career advancement.
  • Institutional retaliation against staff/company members of color for speaking out on equity issues.
  • Having a high turnover rate in staff/company members of color.
  • Only offering training sessions on unconscious bias when called out and with no ongoing action items for changing organizational practices.
  • Having a budget that only allocates for one/select token “diverse” show/production, with no strategic plan to rework practices to diversify the repertoire/company regularly.
  • Allowing White folks to indulge in abstraction and meaninglessness within choreography, while holding POC to impossible standards of depth/intent (thereby allowing a space for White artists to experiment, while stifling POC artists).
  • Only recognizing and valuing POC that are “successful,” while allowing “up and coming” White choreographers to take up space.
  • Being loud and proud about the work you are doing for POC communities but not having hard conversations behind closed doors.
  • Not allowing more than one Black/Asian/Latinx choreographer in the festival line-up because their work has similar themes, while allowing 5+ White folks to noodle around saying nothing for 45 minutes. 
  • A lack of understanding of the complexities of Black and Brown bodies in performance:
    • Black and Brown dancers are almost automatically seen as political especially in modern dance spaces (so, if we create/say something political, our work is put into a box).
    • Black and Brown folks are held to a different standard when it comes to post-modern and non-performative movement work in arts spaces that are run by white people.
    • If we don’t say anything at all and try to create “abstract” work or noodle around, we are seen as less “progressive” than our white counterparts.
    • Abstraction is unfortunately not a concept Black and Brown artmakers can freely access in most spaces and often have to choose between making the art they want or being respected/accepted as an artist.
    • An overarching assumption from art institutions is that Black and Brown artists are automatically interested in creating work relating to our race/gender/class/other social issues.
    • AND we are very often the only POC in a lineup, so whether we want to or not, we automatically become the representation for POC in those spaces, limiting what we are allowed to do and how we do it.

As White and non-black POC in the dance community, complacency with systemic racism prevents us from seeing all the ways we benefit and participate in it. We recognize that looking at this list can feel debilitating as an artist, director, or educator. Fully realizing an equitable dance community will not happen overnight. You WILL make mistakes and you WILL fall short because these structures run deep and are ingrained in the very fibers of our country, communities, and studios, BUT it is work that we must do dutifully. Hopefully shedding light on these things will help us put one foot in front of the other on the necessary walk to a more equitable dance community. The next generation of dance artists deserve better than the racist structures we had to put up with. 

Linked are a few resources we found helpful for dance artists committed to Anti-Racism.

Learn more about Alicia Mullikin and her work at www.aliciamullikin.com.

17 comments

  1. Ditto Donald Bryd! Have always LOVED your work btw, and yes, have lectured about your work in my “Dance In Society” course as a pioneer in Modern Dance. Having been an apprentice, on company scholarship, for 3 years, and trained with them for 5, in Chicago’s late 80’s/early 90’s “Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre”, I learned every single one of these facts back then. I choose to not be in the second company of “Gus Giordano Chicago Dance Theatre” so I could still apprentice with J.H.C.D.T. Why? Because J.H.C.D.T. stood for something that THEN was different, and that I was urgently passionate about, and still am: cultural equality in a Dance company, performance content, and audience bases. South side to Europe, they were loved. Randy Duncan choreographed vernacular content AND abstract. I knew that this company was even different in that there was always Joseph’s dream being kept, respected, and nourished – 3 men, and 3 women who were African American, Latinx American, and Old European American at all times, all equally incredible artists and technicians in Randy’s unique Jazz style, Graham, and Ballet, with the ability to dance vocabulary from motifs of any of the thousands of African Dance forms Randy was inspired from. It was a start to do this with three umbrella cultures represented on stage, in humanizing through great dance works, the multi cultural knowledge system we each individually are. Unfortunately, it seems this is STILL different. I have always said Ballet is one of thousands of Dance forms on the planet, and that it simply challenges EVERY human body at it’s highest level. I also never say I teach “everything”, nobody can teach every dance form on the planet. I am clear on saying 8 out of thousands on the planet. I also teach the cultures and pioneers of each Form I teach in the cultural, class, and appropriated context they came from. Once, while being a full time Lecturer at the University of Idaho two socially constructed white students assumed I was giving “A”s, and favoring socially constructed black football students as to why so many were taking my Dance In Society course every semester. I was stunned as I simply report and never favor student’s grades. I told them nope, and that I was told by these football students that it was the first time they were learning about African and Latinx history, even though it was through the lens of Dance history in the US last 100 years. This was 06′-11′, L.A. to Seattle students. The socially constructed white students were skeptical of me, and I witnessed their white privilege veil the truth they did not understand. I lit into them about white privilege. I had many socially constructed, small town Idaho students write papers telling me that they never heard of how “noid” science was false, and that there is only one race, and that we are going to use the word cultures, and that we each have a cultural knowledge system, and that they forever will look at POC differently. THIS is why I loved teaching this course. Dance was an entry point into dismantling internalized, oppressed racism. For instance, to this day, I still teach how Katherine Dunham IS the mother, and creator of codifying Jazz Dance in this country, and the racism she dealt with. Also, I AM working on building 4 levels of Jazz, Tap, Hip Hop, as well as Modern and Ballet at the college I teach at here in little ol’ Prescott, Arizona. I also find very very few other socially constructed white people who know every single one of these facts on this list. When I have called any of these out to them, they sometimes argue out of white privilege ignorance, and once in a while, know what they are doing so. That is when I dis-associate, and pull my support from them. Hasn’t happened often in the dance circles I have been in due to the choices I have made, but once in a while. I do my best to help educate as many other socially constructed white people that will listen, and hear me. I will continue to do so till I croak.
    Mary Heller

  2. This is so great but some of these resources are inaccessible by their price – $350 for one of the books listed. This is another problem in the community that needs desperate action and interrogation – the academic ring fencing of resources, paywalls and lack of access.

    1. You make an excellent point — publishing in the dance world is increasingly limited to an academic market where prices are in line with fields like medicine.

      Of the books on Alicia’s excellent list, most of them are available through the UW libraries — either in print on paper or online. If you know someone with library privileges there, you can take advantage of that. The UW also has subscriptions to most of the journals listed above, so there’s that as well.

      If you’re looking to buy, make sure you check the used book services online. Powell’s has a good dance collection, but if you’re having trouble finding something, check ABE Books.

  3. Many thanks for this important resource and call for change. I will share it widely and re-consider my own work.

  4. Bravo, this is excellent – and there is more, always more to do!
    So-called “dance science” and even the language of anatomy are embedded in eurocentric, racist, sexist, and absolutist ideas.
    This has got to change, and I personally have a mission to do that – both inside and outside the “establishment”.

  5. Yes, great article and information! Thank you for all of the symptoms of Racism in dance. NOw we need to put in action the processes to eradicate the problem! I have lived my whole life fighting the fight, I’m tired, but I won’t give up!!

  6. This is a great article! Thank you for shedding light on these issues. I wanted to know if you have looked at any statistics within these issues. Is there quantitative research? I appreciate your input.

  7. This really needed to be Printed, even part of Dance Education in Dance Schools from Teen years and on because this shit is real. I think different Generations of Dancers of Color would have such a range of experiences. My Mom Trained in Harlem growing up in the 40s, taking Dunham, Ballet,Tap until her early 20s, got Married and went to Nursing School specifically because the lack of well paying Dance opportunities for Dancers of Color. I Started in 76, at 13 and thru the 80s in Ballet Company as well as Modern Companies..ive absolutely seen and experienced Systematic Racism. I don’t think many Articles are out there on this subject and im really glad we’re taking an honest look at this.

  8. Great read, shedding light on how the thinking shapes the actions…. and the consequences that follow….

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