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  • McKenzie Ennis

The Racial Divide Within D.C.'s Ballet Companies

Updated: Jun 19, 2021

Classical ballet is a style of dance that has been around since the 1500s with its origins in Italy. It was not brought to America until over 200 years later in 1735. Unfortunately, ballet was not able to escape the common racist ideals of America. Companies tended to want dancers who were white and skinny to represent them. This means that many skilled African Americans were turned away, because they did no fit the standard.

If an African American did make it into a company, he or she was limited to a small or ethnic role and would sometimes be required to wear extra white makeup to make them look more pale. It was not until 1928 that an African-American scored a major position in a ballet company. Her name was Katherine Dunham. She performed many big and public shows catching the eyes of millions.

Soon after, African Americans were slowly beginning to be taken more seriously in the ballet industry. On June 30, 2015, Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be be promoted to principle dancer (which is the lead dancer in a company) for the American Ballet Theater.

Those are just two remarkable African-American classical ballet dancers. Women like them inspire me to keep going through the obstacles that ballet throws at me. Even today, underlying racism still generates ballet. In The Washington Ballet (TWB) there are two main campuses, one in South East, D.C. and another in Northwest, D.C.

I go to the South East campus which is predominantly black. The Northwest campus is predominantly white. Although both campuses have beginner to novice training, the Northwest campus is the only one to hold the Professional Track Program (PTP) and the company dancers.

The only time both campuses came together was for the Nutcracker and the Spring Performance. This separation caused a rift between people on both campuses. Sometimes the main company would perform professional shows and would technically invite all of the Washington Ballet dancers to audition. I say “technically,” because many people at Southeast were left in the dark about the details.

Most of the roles would go to the Northwest dancers due to lack of advertising at Southeast or the struggle for some Southeast parents to get their children to the Northwest campus for auditions and rehearsals (both held in Northwest).

I have even seen Southeast dancers turned away, because they would not be able to fit the pre-made costumes that can only fit on people at or under a certain weight. It was not until the past few years that the Southeast and Northwest campuses started seeing more of each other in collaborative performances held at Southeast.

As a black dancer at The Washington Ballet, I stay motivated by looking at prominent black dancers, such as Katherine Dunham and Misty Copeland, who have made it far in their careers with harder obstacles than I and my fellow Southeast dancers face.

I know that if I put in the work, I can do just as much as the dancers in the Northwest. I believe that if we dancers at Southeast work hard enough, we can break this divide between the two campuses.

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