May-June 2016 | In Pursuit of Diversity

The Washington School of Ballet has boosted the diversity of its student population through local outreach programs. Photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas

The Washington School of Ballet has boosted the diversity of its student population through local outreach programs. Photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas

Broadening access to dance training for students of color

By Lynda Van Kuren

“Lonely” isn’t usually a word dancers use to describe themselves, but that’s how 17-year-old Sarah Jones feels at the studio where she trains. Jones (not her real name), who is African American, is the only nonwhite dancer there, and though she’s not overtly excluded, she doesn’t share the sense of camaraderie her fellow dancers enjoy. Worse, she believes that her teachers single her out for more negative criticism than they give to other students and that the faculty either overlooks her in casting or gives her roles begrudgingly.

“I wish the teacher would make the studio feel more open and treat everyone the same,” Jones says.

Today, despite such firsts as the recent promotions of Misty Copeland and Stella Abrera to principal dancers at American Ballet Theatre, the dance world as a whole fails to reflect United States demographics. In fall 2014 the number of Hispanic, African American, and Asian/Pacific Islander students surpassed the number of non-Hispanic whites in K–12 public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Data from the Child Trends Data Bank show that this trend is expected to continue. Yet at most dance studios, minority children are woefully underrepresented—a fact that has negative implications for dance as an art form as well as for the future of dance schools.

To survive, dance—and ballet in particular—has to be for kids of all colors.Cheryl Taylor

“Attracting minority dancers is tough,” says Cheryl Taylor, school administrator at Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (CMDC), a school that she says draws nonwhite students by offering a welcoming environment, high-quality classical ballet training, and modern/contemporary choreography. “But I think to survive, dance—and ballet in particular—has to be for kids of all colors. We have to open the doors and let others in.”

Attracting and keeping students of color not only ensures that all children have the opportunity to dance, it also enlarges the role dance schools play in ensuring that ballet and other dance forms thrive. By broadening their student base, dance studios have the potential to increase their enrollment and attract new audiences.

Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center attracts nonwhite students with its welcoming environment and contemporary choreography. Photo by Steve Capers

Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center attracts nonwhite students with its welcoming environment and contemporary choreography. Photo by Steve Capers

Increase exposure at public schools

To become interested in dance, students must be exposed to it, and one of the best ways to do that is to collaborate with public schools, particularly those that serve large minority populations. The Washington Ballet (TWB), in Washington, DC, found this strategy to be quite effective. Its DanceDC outreach program reaches approximately 700 students at 13 elementary schools and the Sitar Arts Center, a community arts organization that offers classes in dance, music, drama, writing, and art.

TWB’s instructors work with public school teachers to weave dance history, culture, and technique into academic curriculums, sparking the students’ interest in the art form. Building on that interest, they top off classwork with a complimentary performance by TWB.

Teach a class in a multicultural community

Teaching a class at a school, recreation center, or church in an ethnically mixed neighborhood is a proven way to attract minority students. TWB’s second outreach program, TWB@THEARC, which has 340 students, and Reach, Charlotte Ballet’s outreach program, which has 100 Latino and African American students, hold neighborhood classes. TWB@THEARC holds classes at an arts center in a minority neighborhood, and Reach offers classes in urban recreation centers. Doing so not only introduces students of color to dance, it also can eliminate some obstacles to training, such as lack of transportation.

“Often, minority kids haven’t been exposed to ballet,” says Septime Webre, TWB’s artistic director. “Their parents haven’t been exposed to ballet, and they don’t have the resources to bring their children to a studio every day. Dance classes that are held in the community provide a point of entry to studio training.”

To ensure that students see where all their hard work in class can lead, both TWB@THEARC and Reach augment their community classes with complimentary tickets to their theater and on-site community performances. “We try to show our students the goal early, and that gets them excited,” says Bianca Morgan, Charlotte Ballet’s director of education and outreach.

Create summer intensives or afterschool programs

By teaming up with other dance schools, art and music schools, and even businesses, dance studios can offer multiple art experiences to a wide range of students.

The Washington Ballet's TWB@THEARC outreach program offers classes at an arts center in one of DC's minority neighborhoods. Photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas

The Washington Ballet’s TWB@THEARC outreach program offers classes at an arts center in one of DC’s minority neighborhoods.
Photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas

At TWB@THEARC’s Summer Dance Program, the students get a crash course in the arts, Webre says. According to program director Katrina Toews, students see how the arts are interrelated and learn about art forms other than dance. Parents like these programs because their children can take a variety of classes at one place. “This approach introduces students to other art forms they may be successful in,” Toews says.

Morgan says that Charlotte Ballet partners with Carolinas HealthCare System to present classes on nutrition, injury prevention, and self-esteem. The classes interest many of their students and give the Reach dancers an opportunity to meet the students who attend Charlotte Ballet Academy, Charlotte Ballet’s professional school.

Strategic and targeted marketing

To attract students of different ethnicities, marketing materials must reach them. One low- or no-cost way to get the word out is to send press releases (with information about programs and offers to give interviews) to media outlets, such as radio talk shows, that are popular with minority populations, Morgan says. Another is to identify schools close to community class locations, then ask to send emails and flyers through the schools’ distribution system.

Including children of color in school brochures, on websites, and in videos lets a broad population of students and their parents know they are welcome.

Engage in community outreach

Attracting a wide range of students requires consistent community outreach. The staffs of TWB@THEARC and Reach attend business and community events, such as recreation center open houses and neighborhood meetings, that attract diverse populations. They give presentations, help prospective students’ parents understand how their children can benefit from dance, and explain that children can take dance classes through these programs at a site close to home.

Make students feel welcome

Mentors, role models, and buddies can help students feel comfortable in the dance studio environment. Halley Potter, who studies educational inequality for The Century Foundation, says that an easy way to help minority dancers fit in is to assign them a buddy of the same race or ethnicity. If that’s not possible, she suggests exposing students to biographies of professional dancers who share the students’ heritage. At Charlotte Ballet, a life-size photograph of company dancer Juwan Alston, who is African American, graces the front door used by both company members and students. “That sends a strong message that diverse students are welcome here,” Morgan says.

Embracing diversity should include accepting variations for standard practices, such as these TWB@THEARC students' braided buns. Photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas

Embracing diversity should include accepting variations for standard practices, such as these TWB@THEARC students’ braided buns. Photo by media4artists, Theo Kossenas

It’s important to be sensitive to diverse cultural norms among students, particularly in regard to body type or dance ability, language, and stereotypes about dance. Some variations on standard practices should be accepted. “We have to understand that the way a kid gets to a standard may be different from what we are used to,” Taylor says. For example, an African American dancer’s bun might be braided, she explains, or minority students might wear tights and shoes that match their skin color rather than the traditional pink.

Enlisting the help of professional dancers of color provides role models for minority students. TWB@THEARC allowed its students to watch guest dancer Copeland and her dance partner, Brooklyn Mack (who is, like Copeland, African American), rehearse for TWB’s production of Swan Lake. In addition, TWB@THEARC brings in professional dancers to give master classes, watch the students’ performances, and talk with them. Webre says these interactions are particularly inspiring for minority students. Seeing dancers of color who have become professionals—some of them in the highest ranks of top-rated companies—gives these students hope and the belief that they can do it too.

It’s important to ensure that teachers don’t inadvertently single out—or ignore—any dancer. Because students who look different from the majority of the class may stand out, teachers’ eyes can be drawn to them, says Taylor. As a result, they may receive more criticism about their bodies than other dancers do.

Attracting a wide range of students requires consistent community outreach.

Giving all students equal opportunities to perform is critical to maintaining a welcoming, nonjudgmental environment, even if that means challenging ballet stereotypes regarding casting. These “norms” are quickly becoming outdated: many professional companies, including American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, The Royal Ballet, and New York City Ballet, have dancers of color in their upper ranks. CMDC is following their lead in breaking stereotypes, casting students in roles suited to their ability, regardless of color.

Diversify from the top down

Hiring teachers of color and offering a broad curriculum are excellent ways to attract and keep minority students. Because students see themselves in their teachers, Webre says, they can imagine themselves as a dancer or dance teacher. Classes in hip-hop, jazz, and African dance not only help all students become well-rounded dancers, they can also help nonwhite students connect to their training, according to Webre. And, says Morgan, “they keep the interest of all budding dancers, not just those interested in ballet.”

Ultimately, diversity is a good thing at all levels of the dance world. The deeper the pool of participants is, the richer the art form becomes.

For more information:
Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center (CMDC), Chicago, Illinois

DanceDC, The Washington Ballet, Washington, DC

TWB@THEARC, The Washington Ballet, Washington, DC

Reach, Charlotte Ballet, Charlotte, North Carolina

Lynda Van Kuren trained with the Virginia Ballet Company and School in Fairfax, Virginia. She’s a writer, editor, and dancer and holds an MA in journalism from American University.