Crossing the Color Line
I used to judge local scholarship pageants. It was fun, and I liked that the girls got a moment in the spotlight and some money for their educations. But suddenly my services were no longer needed, and I think I know why.
One particularly long Sunday, after endless rounds of interviews, a tedious sequestered “lunch,” and an evening competition featuring 20 talent presentations (most of which I winced through), we judges were yawning and waiting to give our final critiques when one tottering old gentleman turned to our chaperone and asked, “Is she our city’s first black winner?”
The chaperone started to say, “Well, maybe Cape Verdean?” when I spoke up. Sharply. “What does it matter?” The old man looked at me, dismissed me, and repeated his question. Stubborn and tired past politeness, I said, “She was radiant. That’s all that matters.” Mine was a sole voice in a cold room.
After that, my phone stopped ringing. I remembered that awkward moment when American Ballet Theatre announced Project Plié, a serious effort to diversify its traditionally white ranks (see FYI). Directors of major ballet companies have spouted inclusionary statements for years—“Oh, we’d love to hire minorities, but no one qualified ever applies”—but ABT is no longer content to twiddle its thumbs while waiting for the next Misty Copeland to walk through the door.
The company plans to find and train teachers to bring ABT-quality professional training to kids in previously ignored communities, hand out full scholarships to minority dancers, and get the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to make ballet classes a priority.
Publically, ABT is saying the initiative is about “helping the classical ballet profession better reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our country’s population.” But policymakers at ABT and throughout the ballet world must be stinging from a rash of recent articles questioning ballet’s invisible color line, panicking over declining ticket sales, and marveling at the fame and love showered on “breakthrough” ballerinas like Copeland and First Position star Michaela DePrince.
Bravo to ABT! May its effort to change stereotypical minds be more successful than mine. I’m looking forward to a day when the words “the first black soloist (or pageant queen, or whatever)” truly don’t matter anymore. —Karen White, Associate Editor
The Cost of Accountability
There is a trend now to make colleges more “accountable,” to make sure they offer “good value” by ranking them based in large part on employment rates and starting salaries of graduates. In this era of crippling college debt, these are legitimate concerns.
But it saddens me to think about a college’s “success” being measured primarily by how much money its graduates make and how quickly they find employment. Obviously, especially in this economy, that’s an important consideration. But there are educational outcomes that can’t be quantified on a financial scale, or even quantified at all. What about critical thinking, love of learning, a broad worldview? Don’t we want the children we raise and those we teach to want to achieve more than merely financial security?
Think about your students. No matter how good a teacher you are, not many of them will end up gainfully employed as dancers. But that’s not the point. As dance teachers, you’re teaching your students to listen to music and to their bodies, apply discipline to achieve results, work with others, find joy in expression.
Just like a dance education isn’t going to guarantee a position in a major dance company, no college education is going to guarantee a well-paying job. The job outcome is not the only point.
Let’s make college affordable, absolutely. And let’s make sure all colleges offer a quality education. But let’s think carefully about what that means. A dance education offers students the chance to be dancers, whether or not they ever make money doing it. And college offers students the chance to be thinkers, something they’ll always be, no matter how much they earn.
Tightening standards is fine, but let’s make sure doing so doesn’t strangle our kids. —Lisa Okuhn, Associate Editor